Anyone who sat through group therapy in Pixar’s short film Small Fry will know that Toy Story works brilliantly on a small scale. After a string of Toy Story Toons, which were around six minutes each, Pixar are stretching their legs to make two 30-minute specials. The first one, Toy Story of Terror! is now available to watch online on NOW TV – before its premiere on Sky Movies.
Directed by Angus Maclane (who also wrote and directed Small Fry), Toy Story of Terror! takes us back to territory last visited in Toy Story 2. Indeed, it hands cowgirl Jessie the reins and follows her through the spooky mystery. We’re not talking ghouls and gore here, obviously, although Maclane manages to cue up a lot of references for fans; Buzz’s laser and a hidden monster recalls the tense atmosphere of Predator, while they even squeeze in a shower scene in a motel.
The plot sees the toys spend the night at the Sleep Well Inn after their new owner Bonnie’s car gets a flat tyre. One by one, they go missing in the strange, dark place – leaving Jessie to work out what happened to her friends. Helping her is another lost figure, Combat Carl. Voiced by Carl Weathers, he’s a stern, disciplined soldier who doesn’t let his lack of one hand get in the way of talking about himself in third person. “Combat Carl doesn’t give up! Combat Carl finds a way!” he yells, clearly suffering from Post-Traumatic Shouting Disorder. He’s one of the best Toy Story creations yet.
Fans of Timothy Dalton, though, will be pleased to see Toy Story 3’s debutant Mr. Pricklepants get an equal amount of screen time: from the opening of the film, which sees the gang watching a black-and-white vampire movie, right up until the end credits, the spiky thesp points out the horror tropes with a self-aware whisper. “Patience!” he cries theatrically. “All great horror movies start slowly…”
Toy Story of Terror! does indeed take its time to get to the predictable conclusion. You can imagine the scenario working well as a six-minute short, but stretched out to 22 minutes (once you account for adverts on US TV), it feels a little thin. Maclane makes up for it, though, with a heartfelt tale that genuinely stems from fear: the scary thought that, after finding a new owner to take care of her, Jessie could end up alone once again. That notion of abandonment has always been a central concern for the series, leading to some of its most moving moments.
Toy Story of Terror! may not be terrifyingly original but as a concentrated dose of silly jokes and emotional panic, it’s hugely enjoyable. And if it’s most shocking element is the fact that Pixar have a female lead for a change, that’s certainly something to scream about.