ToyStoryofTerrorcoverGrade: A-
Entire family: Yes
2013, 21 min., Color
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: B+

Pixar takes the same kind of pride and care with their Toy Story characters as Walt Disney did with his beloved Mickey Mouse. Whether it’s a major motion picture, a half-hour TV special, or one of the short Toy Story Toons to come out of Pixar Canada, the quality of animation and the level of creativity is consistently superior to the competition. I know. What competition, right?

Toy Story of Terror is a perfect example. This 21-minute Halloween special debuted on ABC-TV on October 16, 2013, but it stars all of the original voice talents and features the same energy, inventiveness and attention to detail as we got in the three big Toy Story movies. What’s more, with this release the Pixar bunch continues with their playful brand of self-reflexive filmmaking.

This time we pick up the action as Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), and Trixie (Kristen Schaal) are using a portable DVD player to watch a horror film in the trunk of young Bonnie’s car. Her mother is taking her on a road trip, and as the toys watch horror in horror, Mr. Pricklepants narrates, anticipating the action by exposing all of the conventions of the genre in a sardonic running commentary.

Even as Bonnie and her mother check into a softened Pixar version of the Bates Motel, Mr. Pricklepants continues to undercut everyone’s fears by poking fun of all the clichés—that is, until the toys start disappearing in darkness one by one after they’ve left the suitcase. Is it too scary for young children? Not really, because of that humorous undercutting, and also because the “big reveal” comes fairly early in the film.  

ToyStoryofTerrorscreenSome will say that the plot too closely resembles Toy Story 2, but it strikes me as a fun variation on what toys might find “horrific” about a motel, and also finds humor in what parents know for a fact: toys can easily get lost in a hotel room. How many times have caregivers found themselves on all fours looking under the bed, opening every drawer, or shaking out all the bedding, trying to find a toy while a child sat there crying? It’s so common it’s almost a cliché—but it’s also a “truth,” and one of Pixar’s many strengths has been telling it like it is, and still managing to surprise. Even after the credits have started rolling, there’s more to surprise and delight.

All of the characters are entertaining and Pixar is generous about sharing the wealth. Everyone gets a funny line, a precious reaction shot, or some kind of spotlight, however brief, so Toy Story of Terror plays a bit like a cartoon version of an ensemble film.

Still, two characters stand out this outing:  Combat Carl (Carl Weathers), a soldier toy the gang encounters along the way, and Mr. Pricklepants (Dalton), whose droll commentary is hilarious. Carl’s—I mean, Combat Carl’s—energy is infectious, and he brings the kind of craziness to the film that Buzz Lightyear did in the first Toy Story.

Since the main feature only runs 21 minutes, you knew that Disney would do something to add value, and the padding is a trio of previously released Toy Story Toons. On the one hand it’s a bummer to have recycled material, but on the other hand, if you’re like me and can’t remember what disc things are on, it’s nice to have all the Toy Story shorts grouped here in one place. Included here are  “Hawaiian Vacation” (with Barbie and Ken), “Small Fry” (about Happy Meal toys), and “Partysaurus Rex” (with “party pooper” Rex deciding to be the life of the party with bath-time toys).

Don’t be put off by the short runtime. Toy Story of Terror is full of jokes, gags, and allusions that adults and older siblings will love. But it’s also designed for young children, with a core message about believing in yourself and, as the old Nike commercials proclaimed, just doing it!