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Trick or “Treats”: Remembering when “Toy Story” invaded ABC Saturday Mornings

Trick or "Treats": Remembering when "Toy Story" invaded ABC Saturday Mornings

Tonight, Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the gang must solve a whodunit mystery when one of them goes missing in the ABC premiere of Toy Story of TERROR! The half-hour project truly puts the “special” in TV special: Not only is Toy Story of TERROR! Pixar’s first TV special, it also marks the characters’ return to the network that helped make them household names 17 years ago. After bursting onto the big screen with Toy Story, the popular playthings invaded the small screen with Toy Story Treats.

Completing its purchase of Capital Cities/ABC in 1996, Disney immediately began considering ways to make its mark on the network. ABC’s Saturday morning lineup seemed like prime territory where Disney could exploit its repertoire of animated characters, an ensemble made even stronger with the arrival of Pixar’s Toy Story in November 1995. Thanks to its gamble on computer animation, Disney had found a $361 million blockbuster and was eager to play with its new toys, so to speak. Hence, the Toy Story characters were to join ABC’s Saturday mornings, starring in 10- to 30-second interstitials bookending commercial breaks.

At Walt Disney Television Animation, executive vice president Barry Blumberg tasked staff writers Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle with penning the Toy Story Treats. Schooley and McCorkle’s credits included the TV series Goof Troop as well as the Aladdin sequel The Return of Jafar. They welcomed the experience to work with the up-and-coming Pixar, which was then located in Richmond, California.

“We saw Toy Story in a really early form, when it was just storyboard animatics with a couple of scenes animated in CG. At the time, there were some people who were like, ‘Oh, CG is a gimmick,’ ” recalls Schooley. “But it really wasn’t about that. It was about those characters and a great story. When we saw the movie a year before it came out, we were like, ‘Wow, this is something new and different! This is going to be huge!’ And it was.”

During their initial visit to Pixar, Schooley and McCorkle met Glenn McQueen, who was in charge of directing the 52 interstitials. Other Pixar veterans who brainstormed ideas for Treats included Andrew Stanton, Joe Ranft and Jeff Pidgeon. Schooley soon discovered there was no limit to the talent roaming the hallways at Pixar, as illustrated when a meeting with Toy Story director John Lasseter was unexpectedly interrupted by Pixar and Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

McCorkle describes the creative process behind each Treat as “a back-and-forth collaboration between us and whoever at Pixar was assigned to it.” The duo had one or two meetings at Pixar, yet most of their writing was done via long-distance contact with the studio. Artists would sometimes send Schooley and McCorkle storyboards, for which the writers would pen dialogue. They were also present with McQueen when vocal tracks were recorded, to rewrite anything on the spot if needed.

Given the lower budget of the TreatsToy Story stars Tom Hanks and Tim Allen did not return to voice Woody and Buzz. Instead, Jim Hanks filled his brother’s cowboy boots, while Pat Fraley enlisted as everyone’s favorite space ranger.

Schooley and McCorkle wrote the Treats with more concern for the characters than for continuity with the movie.In the interstitials, Andy’s and Sid’s toys regularly interacted in Andy’s old bedroom, despite having never met in Toy Story. “I think the only notion of continuity in our minds was that [the Treats] took place after the first film,” says McCorkle. “It was a fast and loose thing – whatever worked for the gag. We felt like Sid’s toys were all really fun characters, and we didn’t want them to be off-limits.”

Another character they resurrected – literally, that is, since he was blown to smithereens in Toy Story – was Combat Carl. The 12″ action figure joined the minuscule Green Army Men for a cadence march in one of the TV spots. “He was an asset already available, so it just seemed like a fun idea to let people have another glimpse at him,” says McCorkle of the character, who will be seen again – albeit with a considerable redesign – in Toy Story of TERROR!

Toy Story Treats premiered on ABC Saturday mornings in the fall of 1996, in time for the VHS and Laserdisc release of Toy Story. Standouts among the Treats included Woody losing a staring contest to Lenny the Binoculars, and Woody having a nightmare in which Sid switched his and Buzz’s heads. The interstitials were well-received by fans eager to see more of the characters. Concurrently, ABC “was a TV network thrilled to have movie stars, basically,” says McCorkle.

The Treats eventually made their way to home video in October 2000, with the release of the Toy Story Ultimate Toy Box DVD set. Since then, the interstitials have become regular inclusions on DVD and Blu-ray releases ofToy Story. Some may also be seen at Disney.com

Pixar enthusiasts often study the Treats to see what Easter eggs they may find, especially regarding ideas the studio later revisited. One of the most cited examples of this is the Treat in which Woody, Buzz, Rex and Hamm meet their Happy Snacky kids meal doppelgangers – a concept revisited in the 2011 Toy Story theatrical short Small Fry. “At the time, the budgets weren’t going to allow any new assets,” says Schooley. “So, we had the idea to shrink the existing models, call them kids meal toys, and get some jokes out of that. It was a practical way to use those characters in a way you hadn’t seen in the movie.”

That particular Treat also finds the fast food figurine version of Woody claiming to be “a collectible,” which fans interpret as a foreshadowing of Toy Story 2. But Schooley denies that was the intention. “When you’re dealing in that world, with those characters, there are certain jokes or situations that are pretty natural,” he explains. “It is foreshadowing in that they seem like areas you would want to explore more with those characters. But we weren’t geniuses to come up with those ideas – they’re kind of obvious, I guess. It was interesting to see some of those things and how they played out later.”

In retrospect, Schooley’s favorite Treat is that of the toys waiting impatiently for Andy to arrive home from school. To their horror, they suddenly remember Andy has soccer practice, making their wait even longer. (“I think we need a hobby,” deadpans Hamm, to his disappointed comrades.) 

McCorkle’s favorite Treat shows Woody placing a building block in front of a speeding RC, forcing the car to come to a screeching halt. Woody turns to Buzz and, pointing out the obstruction, quips, “Road block!” Canned applause erupts as Woody and Buzz then break the fourth wall, smiling widely at their audience while giving the thumbs up. McCorkle praises McQueen’s direction for the interstitial, particularly “the way he sold it physically when he would act it out.” Its final shot was a recreation of a photo of McQueen and Lasseter, with Woody clearly modeled after the former. “It was such a terrific character animation moment,” says McCorkle. “It always reminds me of him.” The Treat has become a bittersweet part of Pixar’s history: At age 41, McQueen died in October 2002, due to melanoma.

Schooley and McCorkle went on to help with another Toy Story project for television: Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. Airing on ABC and UPN in the early 2000s, the traditionally animated series followed the adventures of the “real” Buzz Lightyear on whom Andy’s toy was based, as he and his fellow space rangers battled the evil Emperor Zurg across the galaxy.

The writers also pitched a Christmas special starring Woody and the Roundup Gang. Schooley and McCorkle wanted to do the special in the style of the stop-motion Rankin/Bass classics, presenting it as if it had been locked in archives since the 1960s. “We pitched it to John, and he was really enthusiastic. But then Kim Possible got picked up, and we got consumed by that,” says Schooley. “Our impression was that Pixar was going to continue to develop the special without us. But I guess, for one reason or another, it never happened.”

The main reason, Schooley believes, is that Pixar was more interested in making features at the time. Fresh off the success of Toy Story 2, the studio sought to ramp up its production slate, recruiting proven talent from around the industry. The day Schooley and McCorkle went to pitch their TV special to Lasseter, they met the latest director to join Pixar. From what they understood, he was starting to work on a movie about a family of superheroes.

Nonetheless, Pixar would eventually make its first TV special, Toy Story of TERROR! There is little wonder as to why Pixar chose Woody and Buzz to headline this studio milestone. The characters’ popularity has soared to an all-time high in recent years. Some people might credit Toy Story 3, with its $1.06 billion gross and Best Picture Oscar nomination; others might credit the theatrical Toy Story Toons preceding some of Disney’s biggest hits these days. But ultimately, the franchise’s pristine legacy is the result of each entry remaining true to its characters, whether they are escaping an incinerator or simply goofing around in Andy’s room.

Of course, Schooley and McCorkle remain modest about their contributions to the franchise. “We were a small part,” says McCorkle. “Pixar created the characters; we just got the chance to have a little fun with them. But it definitely is a highlight in our career. As fans of Toy Story and Pixar, it’s nice to be able to say we got to visit and collaborate with those people.

“It was a Toy Story ‘treat’ for us.”

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