All right, I’ll admit it: nobody really needed more Toy Story. Toy Story 3 closed the book on it all, anything that comes after can only be epilogue. On paper a Halloween special sounds gimmicky and a perhaps a gateway to a half dozen derivative spinoffs: what about a Toy Story Christmas? Toy Story at the fourth of July? When does it all burn out, leaving behind only the stuff of mediocrity? Ah, but that’s only cold reason talking. A few moments with Toy Story of Terror, and then you remember: this is Pixar. This is Woody and Buzz and the gang, and they are funny. Is it possible to have some extra fresh fun with these characters and the novel charm of the concept that won this studio its prestige? Of course it is.
Toy Story of Terror has the running time of a standard television episode, so its focus is wisely narrowed to a select core cast that includes Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Mr. Potato Head, the Shakespearean Mr. Pricklepants, and the dinosaur toys Rex and Trixie. It’s not long after Toy Story 3 and the gang are on a road trip with their new owner Bonnie and her mother, passing the time on a dark and stormy night by watching a cliche horror flick in the trunk. A bump on the road ends up temporarily trapping Jessie in a closed space, which re-triggers the severe claustrophobia that was established in Toy Story 2. Soon after Bonnie and the toys stop at a cheap motel for the night, most of the group emerges from Bonnie’s bag against the advice of Woody and Buzz, only to find that Potato Head has mysteriously disappeared. A search fraught with mishaps ensues, with Prickleprants readily narrating how their misadventure is following horror movie tropes – until he vanishes as well, that is. Soon enough only Jessie is left to discover the truth and save the day with a little help, but she’ll have to overcome her phobias and discover a whole lot of courage to do it.
In lesser hands I could see this little adventure being one big riff on horror movie tropes, but while the special certainly has its fun with the concept, that early part of the tale simply sets up the real story of toys (both familiar and new) dealing with unfamiliar surroundings and overcoming their limitations to make their way back to where they feel they belong – and out of the hands of an unscrupulous motel manager that’s worked out an absurd method of swiping toys from his patrons so he can sell them off for a tidy profit. Authentic LEGOs, PEZ Cat, the paper clip-wielding “Pocketeer,” and Transitron (a fabulous shout out to most awesome of Transformers toys of yore) all make their mark alongside Woody and company. But the real stars here are Jessie and the indomitable “Combat Carl,” a transparent tribute to G.I. Joe that teaches Jessie his catchphrase of “Combat Carl never gives up. Combat Carl finds a way!” It’s thanks to Carl’s motivational pep talks and dire circumstances that Jessie hatches a daring plan to enable the toys’ escape and get Woody out of a serious jam. After a trilogy of movies where it’s really Woody and Buzz taking center stage, it’s nice to see others get the spotlight for a change. Also, as the films did, Toy Story of Terror does a fine job keeping its rules and the scale of its setting in mind: the fact that toys absolutely cannot be seen in action by humans and have to navigate an human-sized world does plenty to add to the excitement, even if there is no real doubt how it will all turn out in the end.
With the special’s short length this might seem like a bare bones release at a glance, but I’m pleased to find that it’s not so. The special comes with an audio commentary featuring director Angus MacLane, director of photography Ian Megibben and editor Axel Geddes, who do a fine job getting into the details of the special’s many references, little jokes and the roles they have assorted characters play in the story. A trio of unfinished deleted scenes are included, accompanied with explanations from the staff about what they were meant to do and why the decision was ultimately made to leave them on the cutting room floor instead. The “Team of Specialists” feature goes behind the scenes to show the viewer a glimpse of the complete animation process, as well as the considerable lengths the team goes to just to produce their own sound effects.
The Toy Story shorts “Hawaiian Vacation,” “Small Fry,” and “Partysaurus Rex” are also present, accompanied by optional audio commentaries of their own. “Hawaiian Vacation” is a sweet and goofy story where Barbie and Ken miss out on a trip to the tropics, only for Woody and company to pull out all the stops to bring it to them in their own goofy way. “Small Fry” is a goofy story where a trip to a fast food joint presents a diminutive, cuter version of Buzz an opportunity to escape his display case and make a doomed but hilarious attempt at standing in for Buzz at Bonnie’s room, while the real deal has to deal with the awkwardness of hanging out with a support group of discarded toys. “Partysaurus Rex” sees Rex overzealously trying to prove he’s not a stick in the mud by sparking a wild and dazzling party with a bunch of water toys at Bonnie’s bathtub, only to soon find that it’s escalated completely out of his control. Last but certainly not least is a trio of imaginary vintage toy commercials pretty much made just for the fun of it, all advertising different new toys featured in Toy Story of Terror. These videos are both funny and illustrative of how much the creative team gets the toys they bring to life, as shown most clearly by a hilariously overwrought Japanese commercial for Transitron that’s so close to the truth it’s hardly satire.
All told, the content here can range from 50 minutes to well over an hour depending on one’s interest in the assorted audio commentaries, while a sticker price of $14.99 is realistically about a good a deal as one is going to get for a special of this caliber in high definition. What’s on offer here may not be on par with the Toy Story 4 some just won’t give up on, but it’s good material with plenty to offer a family audience and superfans with any interest in the creative process. For those who ever adored the Toy Story series at any point, Toy Story of Terror! ought to remind you where that love came from.