When Shrek The Halls was announced by DreamWorks Animation back in 2007, eyes were rolled by many. Not just because it seemed like a shameless cash grab for the mega-franchise, but also because it followed the lukewarm critical reception of Shrek The Third. Despite the fact that even the makers of Shrek Forever After more or less decided to ignore that movie, it was nevertheless huge, and even in our post-Frozen era still holds the record for biggest opening weekend for an animated movie of all time. It made sense from a financial standpoint for DreamWorks to want to keep the gravy train rolling that year, and it was no surprise to anyone when Shrek The Halls premiered to exceptional ratings.
What was a little surprising, though, was that the special actually wasn’t half-bad. It wasn’t quite “memorable,” and certainly didn’t break any new ground, but it was a reasonably pleasant yuletide treat, giving its viewers a chance to spend more time with the characters they already loved in a far more relaxed setting than the often desperate Shrek The Third. Naturally, DreamWorks Animation wanted more, and a number of other holiday specials followed. These ended up being mostly hit and miss, although none of them struck me at least as ever being “bad,” but it is a bit of a shame that the two best ones of the lot, How To Train Your Dragon: Gift Of The Night Fury and Monsters Vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins From Outer Space!, ended up being largely unseen, in part because of the studio’s poor handling of them (Gift Of The Night Fury, for instance, went to home video an entire year before it actually aired on television). Still, it was a pretty safe and arguably even clever way for DreamWorks to continue their franchises, so it’s a bit of a wonder it took Disney and Pixar so long to try something similar.
Last year, Pixar aired their first ever animated television special with Toy Story Of Terror!, a “Halloween” story of sorts that technically didn’t actually take place at Halloween. For me, it was a somewhat forgettable effort, with the introduction of the hilarious Combat Carl–always referring to himself in the third person and acting like an 80’s movie action hero–being the only thing that really made it notable. There were still “horror” elements at play as the toys started disappearing one by one at an old hotel, but the fun became bogged down by a subplot involving Jessie dealing with her claustrophobia. While it was admirable in a way for Pixar to realistically address a problem that many people have to deal with (myself included, to a certain extent, as I don’t handle being in a elevator with a lot of people very well), it wasn’t exactly a set-up for good comedy, made perhaps more awkward by the fact that Jessie was able to overcome her issue fairly easily.
However one felt about Toy Story Of Terror! (and I didn’t “dislike it” if I’m giving off that impression), its ratings were strong enough for a Christmas special to be announced almost immediately after it aired. Given the warm and fuzzy nature of the Toy Story movies, this made perfect sense, as Buzz and Woody would no doubt be able to pull off the mix of humor and sap that is almost required in these holiday specials. In fact, it’s almost a shock that they didn’t start with a Christmas special in the first place, as it seemed like the most natural holiday for the toys to celebrate for half an hour. So in a way it’s perplexing that Toy Story That Time Forgot really doesn’t function as a Christmas special at all.
Don’t get me wrong: This is not something that I am holding against the special, which I found leaps and bounds more fun than Toy Story Of Terror!, and one that I am eager to watch again. But the things one associates with a Christmas special just aren’t to be found here. There are no carols, no scenes involving snowflakes or holiday cookies, and no speeches made about the “true meaning of Christmas” delivered by anyone during the third act. In fact, the story technically takes place after Christmas, with Bonnie taking some of her favorite toys along with her as she visits a friend over holiday break. Also surprising–but, again, not something that I’m holding against the special–is that Buzz and Woody are barely active as characters here, with the main focus being on Kristen Schall’s Trixie the dinosaur. This may seem odd on the surface given how little she was in Toy Story 3, but Schall delivers terrific voice work on a weekly basis on both Bob’s Burgers and Gravity Falls (not to mention great guest star turns on shows like American Dad!), so giving her more to do here is actually quite nice to see.
Trixie is sad because whenever Bonnie has playtime, she never lets her play the part of the “scary dinosaur,” instead giving that role to any other toy she can get her hands on (even if it’s an Angel Kitty Christmas ornament). But when at a friend’s house for a play date, Bonnie gets distracted by the expensive new video game system he got for Christmas, leaving Trixie, Buzz, Woody and Rex alone in the boy’s large and ominous bedroom. They quickly meet the BattleSaurs, the apparent stars of a hit TV show that look like they came from the world of Gladiator if that movie had featured prehistoric reptiles. Trixie becomes smitten with Reptillus Maximus (See what I mean about Gladiator?), a brave and noble warrior T-rex, and becomes associated with the Cleric, the “spiritual leader” of the “tribe” who doesn’t take kindly to newcomers. What Reptillus and the other BattleSaurs don’t know is that the Cleric is actually keeping a great secret from them, one that he will stop at nothing to keep even if it means killing Buzz and Woody in order to do so.
It may sound weird, but one of the things I enjoyed most about Toy Story That Time Forgot were the BattleSaurs themselves. They were incredibly cool-looking characters. Pixar is known for their almost obsessive attention-to-detail with their animation, but even with a television special, they really knock it out of the park here. The BattleSaurs look and feel like actual toys you could play with, right down to the playsets they live in and the packaging they came out of. The Cleric, especially, has a pretty slick design, looking like a villain that wouldn’t feel out of place on something like Masters of the Universe or She-Ra: Princess Of Power during the 80’s. It seems to be a given that Disney will have toys made (if they haven’t been already), as I can’t think of any kid (or even “big kids” at heart like myself) who wouldn’t want to have these guys as part of their collection.
There are also great gags from start to finish. Much of the humor comes from the fact that the BattleSaurs see themselves as fierce warriors, but still have to deal with the limits that come from being toys, even as they remain completely ignorant of that fact. Sock Monkey, of all things, briefly shows up for what might be the special’s best–and most violent–joke, and while the primary thing being spoofed here is obviously Gladiator, there are references to Star Wars and the original Toy Story films that fans will also appreciate. Toy Story That Time Forgot starts off fun and never stops, only briefly turning sentimental for an ending in which everyone–including the evil Cleric–is happy.
As is to be expected, the voice work is spot-on. It goes without saying that Tom Hanks and Tim Allen voice Woody and Buzz perfectly, even when they are essentially cameos in what is being promoted as their special. Schall is great, as always, giving Trixie more funny moments than she was allowed to have in Toy Story 3. Kevin McKidd is fun as Reptillus Maximus, even if his character arc will remind many of that of another Toy Story hero, and director Steve Purcell makes the Cleric into an enjoyably slimy bad guy. Emma Haduck, although clearly young, provides many effective jokes as Angel Kitty, who randomly and adorably spouts lines that would be found in Hallmark cards at any given moment. Finally, Emily Hahn continues to be wonderful as Bonnie, even if some audiences feel a little bittersweet as they notice that her character has notably aged since we last saw her. She is no longer the toddler we met in Toy Story 3, and like any child growing up, is starting to become more interested in things like video games.
Toy Story That Time Forgot is a lot of fun, but whether or not it will become “required viewing” during holiday seasons to come is up for debate. As I said, it really doesn’t feel like a Christmas special, and could arguably be enjoyed any time of the year in the same way that things like Die Hard and Gremlins are. Still, it should be more than enough to encourage Disney to keep making similar holiday specials (A Frozen one, quite frankly, seems inevitable, especially since Elsa would be capable of ensuring that everyone would be able to enjoy a white Christmas), and if they continue to be as pleasant as Toy Story That Time Forgot, no one should have any problem with that…for infinity and beyond.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?
Toy Story That Time Forgot
Airs tonight at 8:00 ET on ABC Family; repeats on Disney Channel on Friday at 8:30 ET
Rated TV G
Directed by Steve Purcell