Nearly 20 years after their first feature film, Pixar Animation Studios finally crossed over from the big screen to the small one last week with their inaugural television special, Toy Story of TERROR! Most Pixar devotees, if not all, know that before there was Toy Story or even characters like Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody being storyboarded, there was A Tin Toy Christmas. Pixar originally wanted to expand upon its Oscar-winning 1988 short film Tin Toy by situating the title character in a holiday setting, before they decided (partly thanks to Disney’s urging) to ditch the training wheels of television and jump right into making feature films. Now, after decades of critical and commercial success, they chose to move back into television for real, bringing along Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang in the process.
As triumphant, moving, and clever as the Toy Story trilogy is, the series didn’t end with Toy Story 3. In the last 3 years, there have been three Toy Story shorts—“Hawaiian Vacation,” “Small Fry,” and “Partysaurus Rex,” all frenetic and charming. These subtle extensions of the franchise have elicited a generally positive response that’s coupled with an emphatic suggestion from fans that such five- or six-minute morsels would be far preferable to a full-length Toy Story 4. (It’s important, here, to clarify that such a sequel does not yet exist, in spite of breathless, exclusive reports as early as July of 2010 that Tim Allen had signed on for the film. No doubt, a Toy Story 4 could materialize soon, as much as we may wish it doesn’t. But it hasn’t yet.)
What a pleasant and rare situation the Toy Story franchise finds itself in: almost everyone who’s seen the trilogy loves each film, or at least likes them to a point, and almost everyone finds the prospect of a fourth film abhorrent. (Rightly so.) In a recent, and extraordinarily rare, interview, the famously reclusive creator of Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson said, “Repetition is the death of magic.” If the Toy Story trilogy is a series of strokes of illusory beauty, a few hundred minutes of elusive, magical perfection, then wouldn’t a fourth film potentially dilute what came before? Arguably, the same could be said of the three recent shorts as well as Toy Story of TERROR!, but the combined running time of those four stories barely touches half the running length of any Toy Story film. How much harm could be done?
Considering that the shorts have been consistently delightful if slight, not much. Toy Story of TERROR! is a slightly different beast; even at 22 minutes, not including commercials, this short, written and directed by Angus MacLane, could either end up as an equally winning and enjoyable continuation of the characters and franchise, or as a sign that maybe, just maybe, we didn’t need to keep revisiting the world of these toys anymore. Now that it’s aired (and will repeat ad nauseam on ABC Family, the Disney Channel, and Disney XD over the next few weeks), we can breathe a sigh of relief. Though the title is arguably misleading, Toy Story of TERROR! is a fine addition to the ever-expanding series, and a welcome return to the spotlight for Woody’s female counterpart, Jessie. That said, though there are some witty flourishes and reference points, for a Halloween-adjacent special, this isn’t as interested in offering kid-friendly scares for even half its runtime. Of course, any holiday special only has so much time to deal with its story and characters, let alone hewing to the tropes of the time of year when it’ll air. Perhaps, though, it’s better that MacLane allowed some spookiness in the first third of the special, while not letting it dominate the entire thing. If anything, it proves that future Toy Story specials don’t need to be holiday-specific.
There are, though, two important points to discuss regarding Toy Story of TERROR!: the aforementioned trouble of repetition, and John Ratzenberger. One of the criticisms lobbed at Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, especially the latter, even from those who enjoy those sequels, is that they’re rehashing elements or character arcs from the first Toy Story. Certainly, a number of themes have cropped up time and again, such as the fear of abandonment and the desire for a deeper human connection, not just between toys and owners, but between the toys themselves. However, it’s hard not to consider the basic argument as having some merit after watching Toy Story of TERROR!, whose second half echoes the battle the toys have against the key antagonistic force in Toy Story 2. (Warning: from this point on, beware spoilers for a 22-minute TV special you can watch on TV again very soon, as well as spoilers for a nearly 15-year old movie.) In the 1999 sequel to Toy Story, Woody is toy-napped by Al, the proprietor of a local toy store who spots our cowboy hero at a garage sale and recognizes him as the star of a forgotten children’s TV show from the 1950s; Al knows, in short, that selling Woody would net him a fortune, as he’s got the rest of Woody’s crew from the show in storage, waiting to be shipped to a Japanese toy museum that’s willing to pay handily for the entire set, but nothing less.
A surprisingly large amount of that story’s elements crop up in the new special. Bonnie and her mom, along with many of her toys (about whom more in a bit), are on a road trip and get waylaid at an isolated motel after a flat tire. That night, after Mr. Potato Head goes missing, the rest of the toys try to search for him and get picked off one by one. Soon, only Jessie is left, isolated from the group for only a short while before discovering the mystery of this hotel: its owner (voiced by the be-all and end-all of character actors, Stephen Tobolowsky) uses his pet iguana to snatch up children’s toys so he can sell them on an online auction site. He, unlike Al, does not realize the immense value of toys like Woody and Jessie; they’re both bought almost instantly, and for a very high price. (On Twitter, Andrew Stanton said that there was an admittedly clever gag cut for time, in which it’s revealed that Al was the buyer. All that remains is the Easter egg in the short, where Al’s name is listed as the buyer on a shipping label.) It’s up to Jessie to not only save Woody from being shipped to parts unknown, but to get the entire group of toys back to their owner. No doubt, some of the beats are different, but when Tobolowsky’s motel manager tosses Jessie into a glass display case where he’s holding the other toys, it’s awfully hard not to think of Woody being tossed into a personal display case in Toy Story 2.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Al and this devious and unnamed seller is that the latter doesn’t realize the bounty he’s captured. When he finds that Woody goes for a cool $2,000, he’s pleased, but shocked. Anyone who’s watched the trilogy enough knows why Woody’s so highly sought after, but his lack of knowledge is perhaps the biggest reason why he poses far less of a threat than Al ever did. However, in a series that has become so well defined thanks to its detailed, deep character development and quirky takes on problems of maturity and humanity as represented in the inanimate objects that make up our world, it’s a little disappointing to see that Toy Story of TERROR! opens many of the same doors as the films have. The special is cute and clever—though it is less of a horror tale than advertised, turning Mr. Pricklepants into the hyper-aware filmgoer who describes the basics of cinematic language to the group is particularly inspired. It’s not as substantial as any of the films, but really, all this special needed was to not tarnish the franchise’s legacy. On that level, it succeeds expertly.
And perhaps it says something that, in watching Toy Story of TERROR!, the most surprising element was not anything physically on the screen, but a notable absence. At one point before the mystery truly unfolds, Mr. Potato Head makes an offhand reference to his friend Hamm being absent from the trip, the only time in the special when he’s mentioned. As such, Toy Story of TERROR! is a momentous occasion for Pixar: it’s the first time since 1995 when John Ratzenberger didn’t show up. (This, of course, excludes most of Pixar’s shorts.) Ratzenberger was long ago dubbed Pixar’s lucky charm, and it shows: aside from appearing in every one of Pixar’s feature films, even in tiny roles, he’s appeared in related video games, the 1996 series of Toy Story Treats, and even theme-park videos. Seeing as he’s listed as being part of the casts of The Good Dinosaur and Inside Out, it’s hard to imagine that there’s any trouble in paradise with Ratzenberger and Pixar. Having said that, it’s legitimately surprising to realize that he’s missed in Toy Story of TERROR! Granted, there are so many characters in the 22-minute special, including stalwarts like Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and Rex, as well as new ones like the oft-mentioned Combat Carl (voiced quite well by Carl Weathers). From a storytelling standpoint, it’s hard to imagine why Bonnie would bring along a piggy bank on a trip. (Though you could also wonder why Mr. Potato Head went on a trip without his wife.)
All of this, however, runs counter to the way Pixar has incorporated Ratzenberger into its films over the past two decades. He’s played a circus flea, a French waiter (in his least recognizable performance), a truck, a school of fish, and the Abominable Snowman. It’s rare that Ratzenberger needs to be in the movie—though his accent masked his voice, someone else could’ve easily played the maitre’d in Ratatouille. In short, Pixar has made the effort to squeeze him through, to find a spot for him, in the past. As of this writing, there’s been no explanation, via tweet or anywhere else, about why Hamm was essentially written out of the short in spite of Ratzenberger’s long history with the company, so it’s more than a little jarring. The short wouldn’t have been vastly improved if Hamm had been along for the terror-filled ride, but it would’ve felt complete.
This aside, Toy Story of TERROR! is something of a relief. It’s not a full sequel, a full fourth film in this franchise, but it’s an able and decent extension of a franchise that most people would be content were it left alone. It is arguably more important that Toy Story of TERROR! was good if not great, and not a truly damning half-hour of television. Pixar took a much longer time to reach the small screen than DreamWorks Animation ever did: that company’s made countless TV specials with characters from Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda, where Pixar had backed away for a long time. Maybe it’s a bit ironic that Pixar was so reticent to embark on a small-screen treatment of their big-screen characters after they were initially inspired to start there. And though their first (based on the ratings, likely not the last) TV special isn’t perfect, it’s a fine reminder of the company at its best as opposed to a dilution of the same.