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Toy Story of Terror!

(ABC; US DVD: 19 Aug 2014)

Pixar’s Halloween special Toy Story of Terror! is another entry into the wildly successful Toy Story series, and deservedly so. Playing with the conventions of classic horror movies, the special cleverly incorporates them in a way that stays true to the already beloved Toy Story while also dropping them into a brand new setting.


As the special begins, the toys are in a car on a rainy night watching an old black and white horror movie on a portable DVD player. They’re poking fun and also a little scared, and it serves as a perfect introduction to what’s to come. Throughout the movie viewing, Pricklepants is narrating and predicting all the horror movie elements that are standard to the genre. It’s a smart way to set up the story, while also adding humor in the form of Pricklepants’ dramatically deadpan delivery.


Things quickly escalate when the car gets a flat tire and Bonnie and her mom are forced to take shelter for the night at the Sleep Well Motel. As soon as they go to bed, the toys decide to explore and it immediately becomes obvious that something strange is happening. The special makes great use of all the typical horror movie tropes, such as an unseen creature only shown through a quick-moving shadow or a main character hiding in fear as the creature approaches, the music getting more and more ominous the closer it gets. These tropes are an excellent way to make the Toy Story version familiar, yet because it’s set in the world of toys, also still intriguing.


When it becomes clear that there’s something more sinister at work at the Sleep Well Motel, namely the manager’s side gig stealing guests’ toys and selling them online (all with the help of his pet iguana, Mr. Jones), the story then has the high stakes needed in order to justify the horror movie setup. However, rather than just being a scary story about the toys’ separation, there’s an added element of both continuity and the larger themes of friendship and sacrifice. Jessie’s tragic backstory as an abandoned toy picked up and kept in a collector’s box for years comes back to play an integral role in Toy Story of Terror! and, in turn, it makes her dramatic moment of heroism even more heroic.


The Toy Story franchise has continued to grow and expand so successfully over three full length films and several shorts because it’s found a way to keep the original characters, like Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and Mr. Potato Head relevant while also adding other toys along the way. The addition of toys in this special only continues that tradition. Combat Carl, Old Timer, Transitron, and Lego Bunny all bring fresh viewpoints to the story, as well as further develop the Toy Story world.


Toy Story of Terror! is a perfect Halloween story in that it brings in the recognizable elements found in horror movies, while also staying true to the Toy Story universe. The movies and shorts have always been light, funny, and immensely clever, but they’ve also been able to connect with the audience in an emotional way that never feels contrived or manipulative. Perhaps part of the reason why they work so well is that they are able to employ a healthy dose of nostalgia in intelligent ways, and Toy Story of Terror! uses classic horror movies to the same effect. There’s a comforting familiarity to the story that makes it easy to understand, but it’s the details, like Mr. Potato Head losing an arm, but still using it to direct his pals, or Lego Bunny transforming into stairs to help with an escape plan, that make it uniquely part of the Toy Story universe.


The Blu-ray release includes a number of excellent bonus features, such as three Pixar short, collected here as Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation, Small Fry, and Partysaurus Rex. Though these are already available as the shorts that accompany Cars 2, The Muppets, and Finding Nemo 3D, respectively, it’s still nice to have them included here all together. In addition, the special features include deleted scenes; brilliant vintage toy commercials for Combat Carl, Old Timer, and Transitron; a behind-the-scenes featurette, Team of Specialists; and commentary.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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