Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
The project that would become Toy Story originated as a holiday TV special. Meant to spin off from Academy Award winner Tin Toy, A Tin Toy Christmas was going to be Pixar’s big break into being known for something other than little-seen theatrical shorts and advertisements for which the company went un-credited. But Tin Toy Christmas proved too expensive for the television networks of the late 1980s, Pixar would make the move into feature films instead, and the rest is history.
It’s fitting, then, that Pixar is making a turn back toward holiday specials—and with the characters from the Toy Story franchise to boot. The company’s chief competition, DreamWorks Animation, has had fitful success with turning the characters from its various animated films into holiday hucksters. But those specials have been very of the moment, in ways similar to the studio’s feature-length output. Yet if Shrek The Halls or Monsters Vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins From Outer Space haven’t stood the test of time, it’s not for lack of trying. The half-hour holiday special is a different—and difficult—nut to crack, one that requires a timeless story that can be crammed into less than 25 minutes of running time.
Does Pixar manage the trick with its new Halloween special Toy Story Of Terror? Not really, but the inventiveness of the franchise is entertaining enough to carry the project for 22 minutes plus commercials. Boasting original cast members including Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, and Wallace Shawn, Toy Story Of Terror bets that it can coast off affection for the characters to establish a beachhead in a surprisingly competitive field.
The story setup is promising enough: On a trip with new owner Bonnie, Woody, Buzz, and the gang find themselves staying at a cheap roadside motel—one whose manager boasts the voice of Stephen Tobolowsky. (That it’s taken the character actor this long to hook up with Pixar is a shame.) The studio finds a new aspect of toy ownership to build a film around—the fate of toys that accidentally get left behind at a hotel—and it also bakes in some nicely effective creepy moments with an unseen assailant that stalks the characters, picking them off one by one.
It never gets truly scary, of course, this being a Halloween special aimed at kids. But there are some nicely tense moments, particularly when Cusack’s Jessie The Cowgirl finds herself alone and separated from the others. Jessie’s been crying out to be the center of a Toy Story project for a while now, and while this isn’t the best use of her particular talents—there are moments when the characters just bluntly remind viewers about her character arc through the films—Cusack offers a nice riff on the “final girl” motif. Toy Story Of Terror is at its best when it’s riffing on toy culture as well as horror films. Timothy Dalton’s Mr. Pricklepants fancies himself an expert on the genre, and his interplay with Shawn’s Rex about where the story might be headed provides a pressure release for any kids who might find the scarier sections particularly harrowing. There are also some solid laughs derived, as always, from how toys might act if they could move independently, and a handful of fun new characters—including the first speaking appearance of the long-storied Combat Carl, voiced by Carl Weathers. (Also great: a cat-shaped Pez dispenser named Pez Cat.) And as with all Pixar projects, the special looks lovely, like an unseen chapter from one of the Toy Story films.
The problem is that holiday specials require timeless stories, and Toy Story Of Terror simply doesn’t match up in that regard. Rather than provide a riff on some hidden aspect of Halloween tradition (as Disney’s very similar Prep & Landing did for Christmas), the special instead aims to be a Toy Story take on the horror genre. That’s all well and good, but it only gets the special about halfway through its running time, at which point it immediately begins remaking a plotline from one of its theatrical predecessors. The Toy Story franchise has always operated best with a note of existential panic, and there’s some of that here, but it feels like the special leans awfully hard on the films that gave rise to it.
Created by: Angus MacLane
Debuts: Wednesday at 8 p.m. Eastern on ABC
Format: Holiday special
Full special watched for review