The Toy Story shorts have been a nice way of continuing the franchise without the burden of heavy expectations that would come with a new feature film. Thus far, they’ve been fun little episodes that are nice ways to warm up a crowd of kids for a Disney feature. But with Toy Story of Terror!, Pixar has made their most ambitious Toy Story short film to date. In addition to being the longest short film, it’s also the first one to push beyond being cute and provide some drama and tension. Once the film gets past a rough start, it ends up being as funny and as emotionally moving as any of the three features.
Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Trixie (Kristen Schaal), Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), and Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) are on a road trip with Bonnie when the car gets a flat tire, and they have to stay at a motel. The toys are already a little on edge because they were watching a black-and-white monster movie in the trunk, and Mr. Pricklepants isn’t helping by describing the plot points of a horror film. As the toys explore the motel room, they start disappearing one-by-one, and discover they, along with some other lost toys like Combat Carl (Carl Weathers), could be in for a terrifying fate for toys, especially Jessie.
The Pricklepants narration at the beginning quickly becomes irritating because while kids may not know the beats of a horror movie, their parents certainly do, and part of the appeal of the Toy Story movies is that they’re entertaining for all ages. Every time Pricklepants mentions a plot point and how the story will proceed, it feels like we’re watching Scream for kids. It also dominates the story because the other toys have a problem getting a word in edgewise.
Thankfully, the economy of storytelling required for a short movie soon gets the plot to the good part, and offers some surprising twists and turns. Director Angus MacLane pulls a clever bait-and-switch by leading us to believe that since this is a TV special and all of the other shorts have been cutesy, Toy Story of Terror! will simply be in the same vein with a holiday spin. But then MacLane slowly amps up the tension by starting to blend in a slasher approach to his film before revealing something that actually has us fearing for the fate of the characters, or at least insofar as the toys have a legitimate reason to be terrified.
And when it comes to Jessie, her terror is the most profound. As we learned when we first met her in Toy Story 2, Jessie has a serious case of claustrophobia, and that very real fear becomes something she has to face in Toy Story of Terror!. MacLane could have simply rested on a far softer story, but by putting the emphasis on Jessie having to confront her fear, he comes up with a strong conflict that has us cheering for the character as she deals with serious odds.
Toy Story of Terror! goes above and beyond a typical animated holiday special and also surpasses the shorts that came before. Granted, the time constraints put the new short in a separate class, but in terms of the places its willing to go, MacLane proves the Toy Story shorts don’t have to be devoid of drama if they’re given enough room to breathe. Bolstered by some stunning, photo-realistic backgrounds, Toy Story of Terror! is another step forward for the beloved franchise.