80s toys, Andy, angel kitty, animated, animated special, animation, Battlesaur Cleric, battlesaurs, Bonnie, Buzz, Buzz Lightyear, cgi animation, Christmas, Christmas review, christmas special, dinosaur toy, dinosaur toys, dinosaurs, Disney, Don Rickles, gladiator, holiday special, Jessie, Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl, John Lasetter, Kevin McKidd, kristen schaal, Mr. Potato Head, Mr. Pricklepants, Pixar, playset, playtime, presents, pterodactyl, Reptillus, Rex, Sheriff Woody, Steve Purcell, Studio Trigger, t rex, Tim Allen, Tom Hanks, Toy Story, Toy Story of Terror, Toy Story That Time Forgot, triceratops, Trixie, Wallace Shawn, Woody
I’m not sure which astounds me more – that it took me this long to finally talk about Pixar, or that the first Pixar thing I’ll be reviewing isn’t one of their movies.
Toy Story is a series that I’d say had its highs and lows if it wasn’t for the general opinion that it’s been nothing but highs – and I can see where that would stem from. No one expected the first fully computer animated film to be more than a novelty, let alone a box-office success, and especially not a cultural phenomenon that put Pixar on the map. The whole story of Toy Story’s genesis is worth an analysis of its own, but I’m saving that for when I look into one of the actual movies themselves. For now, the special.
Despite every plot point and character arc of the Toy Story saga being nicely wrapped up at the end of the third movie, that didn’t stop the Pixar crew from playing around with their toys; if anything, a new locale and characters meant even more storytelling possibilities. So when they weren’t twiddling their thumbs debating whether it was too soon to make Toy Story 4, they began releasing Toy Story shorts in front of select movies. They were fast, funny, and always in the spirit of the trilogy. Then in October 2013 came their very first television special, Toy Story of Terror, which I consider one of the most perfect half-hour holiday themed pieces of programming to grace the airwaves (suck it, Great Pumpkin). It was a dark adventure that cleverly paid homage to classic horror tropes without losing that trademark Pixar humor and heart. But perhaps what I love most about it is how it expanded upon one of my favorite characters from the series, Jessie, and elevated her to the spotlight. I know I’m not alone in noticing how Pixar is something of a boys club when it comes to their features, so having the ladies take the field is a nice change.
It should come as no surprise that after Toy Story of Terror’s success, another special was greenlit. Originally pitched as a short, some nobody at Pixar named John Lasseter expanded upon it until it became Toy Story That Time Forgot (though apparently he was so busy expanding that he forgot to put a “The” in front of it, thus driving all grammatical sticklers insane). But does the lightning strike twice or does it…something…toy metaphor for failing…
Our special starts on Christmas with Bonnie, Woody and the gang’s new owner after the events of Toy Story 3 (oops, spoilers), playing with her toys. It’s the usual fun and imaginative stuff you’d expect from a five year-old girl, though there’s a bit of a recurring theme this time around – the playtime we’re shown focuses mostly around secondary character Trixie the triceratops and the different roles Bonnie assigns her. She’s a fairy, a reindeer, a disgruntled mother, but never an actual dinosaur in the games she plays. In fact, the one time she believes she’s going to be a dinosaur, that part is arbitrarily given to an ornament shaped like an angel kitty.
Bonnie leaves the room and the other toys assure her she’ll get her dream role someday. Trixie admits that she probably wouldn’t know how to act when the time comes because she’s never been treated like a dinosaur. And ultimately, this forms the biggest problem I have with Toy Story That Time Forgot. First, I love Kristen Schall, but when I close my eyes all I can hear is Mabel Pines. And now that I’ve reminded you of her, you can’t unhear it either. Go ahead. Watch this short with your eyes shut and tell me if you see Trixie or Mabel saying those lines.
Second, and I am well aware that this is going to make me sound like a major hypocrite after praising Pixar for making Jessie the lead of Toy Story of Terror, I think they chose the wrong protagonist to center this story around. Trixie isn’t a bad character, but she was only introduced in the previous movie and wasn’t in it for long enough to develop a compelling personality. We had two whole movies to get to know Jessie, which made it all the more exciting to have her be the star of her own special. Now instead of following another familiar face in this outing, they’re all cast aside for one minor character we’ve never really had a reason to care about before. If there’s any classic Toy Story character that would be more suited for the lead in Toy Story That Time Forgot, it would definitely be Rex. An overly neurotic and cowardly dinosaur who’s accepted into a tribe of masculine dinos and must discover the courage within to save his friends? This sounds like it was made for him. And Rex is no stranger to the spotlight since he’s gotten a short of his own, too. I get the feeling that they originally wrote Toy Story That Time Forgot around him, but at the last minute someone pointed out the lack of double-X-chromosomes and they switched it out to Trixie so nobody would call Pixar out for being sexist – again.
Bonnie packs up Woody, Buzz, Rex, Trixie and the Angel Kitty and her mom takes her to a playdate with Mason, her…friend? Relation? Acquaintance? Father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate? Whatever. Mason hit the motherlode this Christmas; his room looks like the backstock on Toys R Us’ closing day, but his attention is focused on the number one present in the other room, the latest hi-tech video game system that wishes it was the Nintendo Switch. Bonnie ditches her backpack (with her toys inside) and joins Mason. The way they animate the backpack landing into the other room is great, bringing to mind a spaceship crashing on an alien world.
The toys exit the backpack expecting a greeting from Mason’s toys, but they’re nowhere to be seen, which strikes them as odd. Trixie spies some open packaging for some new toys called Battlesaurs and the gang quickly forgets about the others in their eagerness to meet the newcomers. She follows a tiny dinosaur deep into the heart of Mason’s playroom where the Battlesaurs have set up their…set, a prehistoric city.
The Battlesaurs demand to know the toys’ purpose, and Trixie, determined to be as dedicated to roleplaying as her new friends, jumps into the part of gladiator seeking combat. This pleases the Battlesaurs, and they show them to their leader Reptillus Maximus (Kevin McKidd). Reptillus is more interested in meeting Rex and Trixie than Buzz and Woody, and seems quite taken with Trixie in particular. They are also introduced to the Battlesaurs’ ancient cleric voiced by Sam & Max creator Steve Purcell doing a great impersonation of Ian McDiarmid. I had to look it up to be sure if it was actually McDiarmid or not, it was that good. I mean, what other voice do you give an elderly and wise but manipulative and obviously evil overlord clad in dark robes who carries a cult-like following?
At Reptillus’ urging, the Cleric reluctantly allows Trixie and Rex to be welcomed into the tribe. As they go get suited up, he has Woody and Buzz abducted to parts unknown. Reptillus shows Trixie around the Battlesaur city and she quickly grows enamored with their warrior way of life. The Battlesaurs even sing their theme song which sounds exactly like an EXTREEEEME 90’s commercial. I’ve seen the crew talk about this, I know that the special inspired the toys and not the other way around, but in this instance it feels like the makers did their homework a little too well, making something that could far too easily be made into actual toys for Disney to sell and make this special into a twenty-minute commercial. The fact that they commissioned Studio Trigger of Kill La Kill and Little Witch Academia fame to make an intro is kind of cool, but with people clamoring for an actual Battlesaurs series, well, I don’t know how to feel about that.
Trixie admits this experience is nothing like her playtimes with Bonnie, which confuses Reptillus. Trixie tries to explain exactly what playtime is and comes up with an answer amounting to surrendering yourself to your child’s whims. Reptillus is abhorred by the notion because surrender goes against everything the Battlesaurs stand for.
The Cleric summons the Battlesaurs to the arena for their next trial by combat. Trixie’s ready to play fight and is excited when she sees her opponents are some of Mason’s toys she’s familiar with. But Reptillus steps in and attacks them to Trixie’s horror. Well okay, it’s toys fighting other toys, how bad could it possibly –
As the toys are violently ripped apart, Woody and Buzz are ushered in as the next victims. They quickly divulge the horrible truth – the Battlesaurs have never been played with and don’t even know they’re toys; they’ve been picking off Mason’s playthings in their thirst for conquest.
The fight between Reptillus, Buzz and Woody is genuinely amusing. The animation is very sharp and fluid and I like how Woody uses the various button functions on Buzz similar to how he drove off the mutant toys in the first Toy Story. Before Reptillus can deliver the final blow, Trixie comes between them and even manages to knock Reptillus off his feet. The Cleric in turn orders the release of a Battlesaur akin to Return of the Jedi’s Rancor and it quickly gobbles up Woody and Buzz. Trixie figures out how release them but is tossed aside before she can. The crowd is shocked when they discover Bonnie’s name scrawled on one of her feet, which as the Cleric declares, is the “mark of obedience”. Reptillus takes this as a deep betrayal.
The Cleric attempts to seize Trixie by controlling Rex, who just remembered he was in this special too. All joking aside, I love the irony that Rex finally gets the longer more powerful arms he’s always wanted but at the cost of having no control over them; it’s even foreshadowed in an earlier scene. Trixie, knowing the only way she can save her friends is to get the kids involved, escapes to find Bonnie. On the Cleric’s orders Reptillus pursues her. Sometime during the chase Rex is forced to suffer the additional indignity of a metal muzzle.
Trixie leads Reptillus into the maze of half-unwrapped boxes and carefully arranges them so his eyes are forcibly opened to the truth of his existence. The part when he comes across his own box is masterfully done. The way he wordlessly walks up to it, horrified, his form perfectly matching the plastic framing inside, says more than words could. Still, it’s too much for him to accept. He wrathfully plows through it and continues the hunt.
Meanwhile Woody, Buzz, and Angel Kitty (who somehow got in there) are regurgitated from the beast’s maw and they find the Cleric gleefully watching Bonnie and Mason playing video games through his viewfinder.
The Cleric is well aware of the fact that he and the Battlesaurs are toys; he keeps them in the dark as a a way of maintaining his power. And as long as Mason remains busy with his games, it’s going to stay like that. This in and of itself could have been a great concept for Toy Story 4. Shame they had to kind of rush through it here. Like, if all the Battlesaurs were opened a short while ago, how did the Cleric know they were toys and how did he know having a kid’s name written on a toy marked them as their own? He doesn’t even know what Christmas is and has to be told by Angel Kitty (oh yeah, forgot to mention Angel Kitty has this unusual quirk of speaking only in uplifting moral platitudes which makes her even more weirdly adorable). And he monologues everything in front of his minions, so shouldn’t they be asking questions and confronting him over this?
The Cleric orders the toys to be sacrificed to a ventilation shaft with a high-speed fan at the bottom. They’re slowly carted off to their deaths while Angel Kitty plays a mournful rendition of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” on her trumpet and oh my god are they trying to recreate the furnace experience from Toy Story 3?! Because this is giving me serious furnace scene vibes. And the Battlesaur arena being like a repeat of the Sunnyside daycare-prison isn’t helping.
Trixie makes it to the game room and from there it’s a race between her and Reptillus to see who can reach the big red off button first. Trixie’s Battlesaur trappings hold her back until she removes them.
Reptillus catches up with Trixie but she tells him that she can show him how his world is bigger than he realizes, that playtime’s not about being who you think you’re meant be, but being there for your kid and what they want you to be. It’s surrender, but a kind of surrender where you’re not alone. The message having finally gotten through to him, Reptillus turns the game off and trust falls into Mason’s outstretched hand.
You ever hear of the religious interpretation of the Toy Story saga, that the toys are supposed to represent mortals, their kids are literally God and the journeys they go through are akin to finding salvation? Well this special is eerily the most in tune with that bizarre theory, apart from Toy Story 3. It should be a triumphant moment where Trixie realizes that Bonnie’s plans for her are more liberating than trying to find a purpose on her own and convinces Reptillus to do the same, but if you read into it with that interpretation in mind, it gives the impression that she’s preaching happiness can only be achieved by surrendering your identity to a higher power and trying to find your own way is sinful and wrong. I know in my last review I already stated I was raised Catholic, but I’m of the mind that not everything has to go back to religion. Dividing all choices and people into black and white, worshippers and sinners, chosen ones and heathens, does not do the world any good. I find it best to just follow your life by what you feel is right and try do more good to others than harm along the way.
To sum up, the Toy Story religious interpretation is really, really annoying and unless you’re into that sort of thing it’s best to ignore it.
Seconds before Buzz and Woody are dropped to their doom (how many times does that make it now over the course of the Toy Story series?), Bonnie and Mason burst in guns a-blazing. The Battlesaurs are swept into playtime, even the Cleric, and all is right with the world. When the toys return home, Trixie has accepted that she’s Bonnie’s dinosaur, which means she’s free to be anything other than a dinosaur, and that’s perfect for her.
So that’s Toy Story That Time Forgot and it’s…good. Just good. I wish I could say I love it more, but that 100% on Rotten Tomatoes feels a mite generous, especially compared to Toy Story of Terror. It feels like much of the potential was put towards fulfilling a bunch of 80’s boys’ toy fantasies and reduced our favorite characters to bit players in their own special.
And here’s another thing that kind of bothers me about it – for a Christmas special it doesn’t feel very Christmassy at all. The only things about that relate back to the holiday are the opening, a few decorations in Bonnie’s house, and Angel Kitty; the sheer amount of unwrapped post-Christmas morning playsets and toys barely count. You could have this special occur on any day other than December 25th and not much would change. I hate to keep saying it, but in Toy Story of Terror the spirit of Halloween and classic scary movies pervade every second of the special. There was simply no mistaking it for any other holiday. It’s still the superior special, but Toy Story That Time Forgot isn’t without its merits. Trixie is a likable character with a decent arc, there’s some good laughs from Woody, Buzz and Rex, a couple of strong individual moments, and the animation is up to Pixar’s usual high standards.
My thoughts on Toy Story That Time Forgot certainly do not reflect my feelings towards Toy Story as a whole. I love Toy Story, and for all the irrefutable accounts of misogyny and harassment that’s come out in the open I still love Pixar (even if I don’t love the people who perpetuated that toxic culture within it). I just wish I could go along with everyone and keep pretending this special is perfect. I know many of you were hoping I’d give a fun, glowing review like I usually do and I really didn’t want to disappoint anyone, but I can’t lie to myself and ignore the flaws that are worth discussing.
So to that…I’m sorry.
I’m sorry that my first Pixar review was a bust.
I’m sorry I sound like every douchey nitpicky contrarian review whom I strive to avoid being like.
And most of all, I’m sorry I let you down.
So. Toy Story That Time Forgot. It’s not perfect.
Except Angel Kitty.
Angel Kitty is too good and pure and we don’t deserve her.
Thank you for reading! What do you think of Toy Story of Terror? Let me know in the comments! If you’d like to see more reviews and support me, consider joining my Patreon.
12 days left to go and we’ve got one last present to unwrap…but you’re going to have to wait until the big night! See you then!
Artwork by Charles Moss.