When it was announced that Pixar would be endeavoring to make a fourth “Toy Story” feature film (set for release on June 16th, 2017), there were those who decried it as a shallow cash grab since, creatively, there was no where else for the franchise to go, especially after three beloved features and a handful of winning shorts. “Toy Story That Time Forgot,” a 22-minute Christmas special airing on ABC on December 2nd, should put those fears of the franchise’s creative longevity to rest; this is a weird and wild mini-movie, a new Christmas classic, and proof that there are untold avenues of experimentation within the “Toy Story” universe. After watching “Toy Story That Time Forgot,” June 16th, 2017 will seem really far away.
Instead of focusing on Woody or Buzz (or one of Andy’s beloved playthings from the first two films), the emphasis is placed squarely on Trixie (Kristen Schaal), one of the toys introduced in the third film and owned by the precocious young girl Bonnie. Trixie is sad because Bonnie never casts her as a dinosaur when she plays and she’s desperate to reconnect with her primordial roots. The opportunity unexpectedly presents itself when Bonnie goes over to a neighbor’s house for a post-Christmas play date and Trixie winds up meeting a number of Battlesaurs, a group of fearsome dinosaur toys that bring to mind the DinoRiders toys of the late eighties. Since the toys haven’t been played with yet (their young owner is too ensconced in a videogame), they still believe themselves to be ancient warriors and soon enough our favorite characters are thrown into gladiatorial combat (with shades of that episode of “Star Trek” where Kirk has to fight Spock). Like we said: it’s pretty weird, especially for a Christmas special.
The special was written and directed by Steve Purcell, an enormously talented comic book creator and animator whose “Sam & Max” characters got a fair amount of attention after being turned into a series of LucasArts games. Purcell is not one of Pixar’s old guard and you can tell that he’s coming at the material from an entirely skewered angle. While all of your favorite toys are around (yes, Tim Allen and Tom Hanks return), these new dinosaur characters, led by Reptillus Maximus (voiced by Kevin McKidd, who earned his Pixar bona fides on “Brave“), take up most of the special’s running time, which is fine. They’re unlike anything else in the “Toy Story” universe – unrepentantly violent and odd and gorgeously designed (supposedly this was earmarked as a short film but Pixar bigwig John Lasseter became obsessed with the look of the Battlesaurs and suggested a half-hour special). The world that Purcell has created is both wholly separate of anything created in the franchise before, stranger and more sweetly surreal, and yet totally fitting within it. It’s also proof, like the rest of the special, that there is a seemingly limitless amount of tales that can be told within this world.
But as bizarre as the premise might be, what makes “Toy Story That Time Forgot” so special is how emotionally in-line with the series it is. By the end of the special, no matter how peculiar it might have started out, you’ll probably be awkwardly sucking back sobs. At its heart, the film is about what it means to be a toy; it’s not about what is printed on the box but about the imagination of the child that owns you. This is an idea that has been explored in the franchise before (Buzz even makes a joke that references his mindset in the first film), but not at this length. Trixie eventually comes to accept this, as does Reptillicus, and when that moment of realization happens, it’s a beautiful, transcendent sequence (made all the more heartfelt by Michael Giacchino‘s twinkly score). Being a toy, the special emphasizes, is about “being there for your kid.” And in a more pointed move, the movie also makes an impassioned plea that the creativity unleashed by children when they manually play with toys is quantifiably more powerful than whatever they’re getting out of staring at a television screen, playing a dizzying videogame.
Most Christmas specials take place in the lead up to the holiday, when the house is festooned with lights and anticipation, over presents and Santa and family togetherness, is at an all-time high. What “Toy Story That Time Forgot” does is take a look at the immediate aftermath of Christmas, when children have new toys to play with and have to make the tough decision of what to give their attention to. It’s as off-kilter an idea as anything else in the special, something both tangentially related and inherently true to the holiday it’s ostensibly celebrating. This feels like a natural extension of the “Toy Story” franchise considering the first film ended with a sequence set at Christmas, but those looking for more iconic Christmas moments will be disappointed.
That said, “Toy Story That Time Forgot” finally brings the beloved “Toy Story” characters to a Christmastime setting, and the results are truly special – a lovely yuletide bauble of a Christmas special, all decked out in tinsel and surrounded by brand new toys. If there’s a criticism to level at the special, it’s that it’s slightly overstuffed; there’s so many ideas and story points that jockey for space that there’s barely room for anything else. But it still feels like a new Christmas classic, and makes a strong case for the dexterity and pliability of the franchise. Quite frankly, it makes you realize that the “Toy Story” series could easily continue, uninterrupted, to infinity and beyond. [A-]
“Toy Story That Time Forgot” airs on ABC on December 2nd.