Written and directed by Angus MacLane
This is one of the years I was really wary about Pixar. An unnecessary-looking prequel and a Halloween TV special weren’t exactly filling me with hope. But Monsters U was a success, and perhaps more surprisingly, things stay on the upside with Toy Story of Terror, showing that Pixar can do TV just as well.
Bonnie and her mom are on the road when an accident forces them to stop at a motel for the night. The toys go exploring, only to start getting picked off one by one by a mysterious creature. It comes down to Jessie (Joan Cusack) as the one who has to save them before morning comes and Bonnie leaves without them.
The focus on Jessie here is a nice change of pace. The three movies have really been focused on Woody, and while Jessie and Buzz have certainly been major characters, it’s not their journey. Jessie not only gets some backstory expansion (in particular, looking at the effect that being abandoned in a box has had on her), but she gets to be the actual hero here. It doesn’t come down to Woody or Buzz or the ensemble as a whole coming together and saving things, it comes down to her own abilities and facing her fears herself. It’s very well done.
And it’s just a part of the fact that, even condensed down to 30-minutes-with-ads, Pixar loses none of their touches here. The story is interesting, and similar to the Small Fry short, shows another side of the Toy Story world which we haven’t gotten to see. The humor is perfectly done, from jokes regarding new toys that are seen to the toys themselves riffing on a B-movie at the start. And the visuals have not diminished at all. I remember with Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda Christmas special, there was something off with the visuals—not quite TV series bad, just not quite movie good. Here, though, this is as good as any movie Pixar has made. Of all things, it was a scene in a bathroom that made my jaw drop. It was just a bathroom, but it was one of the most realistic looking bathrooms I’ve ever seen in an animated movie. The one flaw here is the use of Mr. Pricklepants as the character explaining all the horror tropes as they apply to their situation. There’s some humor from it, but it just feels too much like talking down to the audience.
Overall, if this is the quality Pixar can bring to TV specials, then they can keep making them. Yet again, they’ve managed to return to Toy Story and keep things fresh, expanding the universe and just making it a franchise that’s clearly loved and cared for by the creators.