When development began on what would eventually become “Toy Story,” back in the early ’90s, the project was not envisioned as the first-ever fully computer-generated animated feature. No, back then Disney and Pixar‘s goal was more modest: it would be a television special, timed to Christmas and based in part on John Lasseter‘s Academy Award-winning short film “Tin Toy.” The team at Pixar still wanted to do a feature, but a 30-minute television special would be the perfect in-between; these were filmmakers who had very limited experience actually hammering out the fundamentals of long-form storytelling. In Disney’s estimation (particularly animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg), Pixar had to walk before they could crawl. Of course, that didn’t happen.
Pixar and Disney went ahead with a feature-length version of the project, with the only carryover being the central concept of toys that come to life when humans are out of the room. Since then, Pixar has had limited involvement with television projects. They produced a series of interstitial bumpers for the ABC Saturday Morning line-up in 1996 (around the time of the movie’s home video release) and were involved in doing some animation for the “Buzz Lightyear: Star Command” animated series. But between those initial talks and now, Pixar has stayed almost completely off the small screen. Until now.
“Toy Story Of Terror” is proudly being proclaimed as Pixar’s first television special and instead of Christmas, the designated holiday is Halloween. This makes a lot of sense, especially since the last time we really saw the “Toy Story” characters, save for the amazing “Toy Story Toons” that have been released in the past few years (“Hawaiian Vacation,” “Partysaurus Rex” and “Small Fry“), was “Toy Story 3,” a movie that was just as much a horror film as it was a family adventure.
The set-up for “Toy Story Of Terror” is fairly simple: Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) and Trixie (Kristen Schaal) are in the trunk of Bonnie’s mom’s car, watching an old-fashioned horror movie. The car gets a flat tire and Bonnie and her mom decide to spend the night at a seedy motel. The toys get out to explore and get picked off one… by one… Unlike the wonderful “Treehouse of Horror” episodes of “The Simpsons” (or the “Shrek” Halloween special), “Toy Story Of Terror” doesn’t follow the format of a horror anthology. Instead, it’s a single, 30-minute narrative. And it rules.
Back at the D23 Expo this summer, during the Disney Animation panel, they screened the first ten minutes of “Toy Story Of Terror” and the crowd was audibly dazzled. When the ten minutes was over, the collected crowd let out a groan/sigh that echoed throughout the cavernous convention center. The footage that was screened over the summer ended with Jessie, trapped in the motel shower (of course) menaced by some unseen force. (In a delicious nod to “Body Double,” Jessie is frightfully claustrophobic.) From there, the special goes an entirely different route… It’s hard to talk about without giving anything away, so if you want to stay fresh for when the special airs on October 16th, turn back now. We’ll tread light when it comes to spoilers but just know that we will talk about some things that you might not want to read about beforehand.
Okay, one of the more refreshing aspects of “Toy Story Of Terror” is that it doesn’t break the rules of the franchise. It doesn’t suddenly become supernatural, awash in phantasmagoric spookiness. Instead, it’s rooted very much in the “Toy Story” world, with threats that matter to toys and (especially) to these characters. A number of fears are played up (not just Jessie’s claustrophobia) and they’re handled in a delicate, thoughtful way. This is not a “Toy Story” special with ghosts and goblins and sparkly vampires. This is very real world and very “Toy Story.”
The special was written and directed by Angus MacLane, a longtime Pixar employee who directed the “Small Fry” short film (there’s even a weird “Small Fry” visual reference, with Bonnie wearing a DJ Blu-jay T-shirt at the end of the short). MacLane is intimately familiar with these characters, and there’s an effortlessness to the storytelling that is simply wonderful. The special toggles between comedy and horror with ease, mostly facilitated by Mr. Pricklepants, the thespian hedgehog, who points out the tropes of the genre as the characters are going through them. “Psycho,” “Vacancy,” “Hostel,” “Alien,” “Motel Hell,” and countless other horror movies are casually referenced, but the nods never slow down the narrative. The folks at Pixar have always been good about not stopping to admire their own cleverness.
There is also some, inter-franchise fan service, as well, as Carl Weathers shows up as Combat Carl, a G.I. Joe-type toy that was referenced in the original “Toy Story” as one of the unfortunate toys Sid tortures and destroys. There are a few new characters, too, who you will fall in love with (get ready to want your very own Pez Cat). We don’t know if there will be toys produced in conjunction with “Toy Story Of Terror” but we very much would like a Lego Rabbit on our desk.
“Toy Story Of Terror” succeeds as a stand alone special (it already feels like a perennial favorite like “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown“) and a part of the continuous “Toy Story” universe. The animation (handled by Pixar’s California campus) is fluid and beautiful, with commonplace character attributes like the glow-in-the-dark sections of Buzz’s space suit and Woody’s loose, ventriloquist-dummy-like limbs taking on a new eerie dimension, especially when accompanied by Michael Giacchino‘s effectively atmospheric score. Everything about “Toy Story Of Terror” is so great, in fact, that it feels a lot more like “Toy Story 3.5” than a thirty-minute television event. It’s also just nice to spend time with these characters, even if they are running for their little toy lives. [A]