I’m one of what feels like a half-dozen people on Earth who really didn’t like Toy Story 3 all that much, and at least one reason why was because it raised an interesting question (“what happens to the toys when Andy grows up?”) and then stalled on answering it for about an hour just so they could do a prison break movie. I’ll be the first to say that it was a very well-done prison break movie, filled with suspense, tension, and excitement, but it felt like a sideshow from the main event. With Toy Story of Terror, the first animated TV special from Pixar, the studio has gone from prison movies to horror films, presenting an amusing tale of terror from a toy-level perspective. It’s great fun and sure to satisfy fans of the franchise.
A road trip for Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Mr. Potato Head, Rex, Trixie, and Mr. Pricklepants gets sidetracked when Bonnie’s mom has car trouble and has to stay at a motel overnight. When the toys exit their suitcase, Mr. Potato Head goes missing, and soon the toys have reason to suspect something more sinister afoot as their investigations reveal much more to the motel than meets the eye. Revealing too much more would spoil the surprise, but I will say that the toys will need some creative thinking and help from other sources (including an errant Combat Carl action figure) to get themselves out of the sticky situation they find themselves in.
You might look at Toy Story of Terror as Pixar’s floor-height take on Scream, as Mr. Pricklepants carefully details the horror-movie tropes they are living through (at least until…no, I can’t give that away). The special itself executes those tropes pitch-perfectly, with mysterious goings-on, inexplicable clues, shadows fleetingly glimpsed, and foreshadowed horrors all deployed to wonderful effect. As with the Toy Story movies, Toy Story of Terror gets a lot of mileage out of what’s important to toys and how they have to solve problems in a world that’s not built to their scale, and several different plot elements hinge on prior rules that have been set up for toys throughout the series. One plot element that seemed a little fabricated for the short was Jessie’s severe claustrophobia, which the toys helpfully explain comes from the time she was abandoned in a box (as chronicled so memorably in Toy Story 2). However, even if I felt it was a little artificial, that plot element also works itself into the plot organically and fruitfully enough. A few moments don’t quite ring true: the toys often seem to speak loudly enough to be heard by nearby people several times, and the architecture of the motel is a little mystifying, but these really only are minor nitpicks.
The animation for the short looks terrific from start to finish, and I didn’t see any visible shortcuts or cut corners. We’ve definitely come a long way when CGI animation on a TV budget can look as good as the Toy Story feature films. Admittedly, they could probably recycle existing character models, and the plot of the short means they could get away with a sparsely populated environment. You’re not going to see anything like the day care crowd scenes from Toy Story 3 here, but a lot of the scenes in this special work specifically because the screen is so empty.
Another aspect where Pixar didn’t skimp is in the voice talent. Everyone from the movies is back to reprise their roles, and they’re all as entertaining as ever. I’m especially taken with Joan Cusack’s performance as Jessie, who probably goes through the most emotional whipsaws in the special, and was also heartily amused at Timothy Dalton’s dryly hilarious Mr. Pricklepants. Joining the regular cast is Carl Weathers as Combat Carl (referred to in the first film as a G.I. Joe stand-in, and seen here in full-size, interactive glory). Like Buzz in the first film, he’s hilarious exactly because he seems to be taking everything way, way too seriously, and Carl Weathers has a ball with the role.
The fact that I enjoyed Toy Story of Terror as much as I did brings me to the other major reason why I don’t like Toy Story 3 all that much: I felt really manipulated by the ending of the film when Andy (and, by extension, the audience) bids a tearful goodbye to his toys. Even as I shed a few manly, manly tears at that ending, that annoying little voice in the back of my head was telling me, “But this isn’t really goodbye, is it? It’s not like we’re never going to see these characters again.” Disney is never going to let these characters go away in any permanent fashion, and the expansion of the franchise with the Toy Story shorts and now this special only make that aspect of my dissatisfaction feel stronger. This is definitely not a criticism of Toy Story of Terror, and in fact is quite the opposite. It’s fun to hang out with the Toy Story characters, as Toy Story of Terror ably demonstrates, but that seems to make that goodbye seem even less necessary.
Toy Story of Terror premieres on ABC on Wednesday, October 16, 2013, at 8:00 PM (Eastern).