The burdens of a film-a-year schedule and an emphasis on sequels seems to have somewhat dulled the previously improbably bright Pixar brand. The company's last three features -- "Cars 2," "Brave" and "Monsters University" -- are hardly disasters, but they pale in comparison to the incredible run of films preceding it, "Ratatouille," "WALL-E," "Up" and "Toy Story 3." Pixar, once an improbably consistent creator of clever, poignant, funny and wonderfully cinematic works for children and adults, has been brought down to earth in recent years, which is why "Toy Story of Terror!," the company's first's television special, is such a welcome surprise. Airing tonight, October 16 at 8pm on ABC, the one-off is a half-hour seasonal visit to the studio's oldest franchise, and it manages to convey the effortless sweetness, humor and emotional depth that definied the three films that have preceded it in a short adventure that starts off as Halloween-worthy and circles back around to more familiar "Toy Story" territory.
Written and directed by Angus MacLane, "Toy Story of Terror!" picks up with Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and company in the ownership of Bonnie, the little girl to whom they were gifted at the end of "Toy Story 3." They're in the trunk of a car, headed with Bonnie and her mother to grandma's house on a rainy night and entertaining themselves on the way by watching a black-and-white horror movie on a stowed DVD player until a flat sends the group seeking sanctuary at an ominous motel.
"The roadside motel is one of the most common locales for a horror film," notes Mr. Pricklepants, the stuffed hedgehog with theatrical leanings voiced by Timothy Dalton. Pricklepants serves a Jamie Kennedy-in-"Scream" function as the plot unfolds and the toys find themselves apparently dropped into another genre, one in which not even warnings about ominous foreshadowing ("Bum bum bummmm!" Pricklepants hums at one point, and the score follows suit) can stop them from getting split up and menaced by a mysterious antagonist.
Pricklepants' meta-commentary and the expected smart visual gags (one involving a Pez dispenser's reaction to an action sequence is a laugh-out-loud moment) make this an entertaining, fleet-footed visit to the "Toy Story" world while diffusing the fright factor for younger audiences, though Jessie, in true final girl fashion, ends up the last one standing as the group is picked away, eventually encountering a ragged action figure survivor, Combat Carl (voiced by, of course, Carl Weathers).
The special plays on classic monster tropes before unveiling the villain, who turns out to be of a type "Toy Story" followers know well. But while "Toy Story of Terror!" may not keep to its announced genre for its full stretch, it does find time to touch on all the things the franchise has done well, including investing complex feelings into its set of animated characters. In this case, it's Jessie who has to grapple with lingering trauma from her time in storage, having to overcome fears about and panic from being trapped that a realized in a very nuanced for a tale about toys that come to life. Even amidst the horror movie salutes, jokes and suspense sequences, "Toy Story of Terror" finds time to remind us it's the emotional core that counts, and that's what Pixar can do like none other when it's at the top of its game.