Pixar’s Toy Story of Terror: low on thrills?

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The reviews for Pixar’s Toy Story of Terror have been out for a few weeks now, and they are overwhelmingly positive. The much-anticipated 22 minute television special aired on ABC just before Halloween, and fans were happy with the result. For those reasons – and the fact that I am something of a Pixar fan – I hesitated to write this article. You see, the sad fact is that Toy Story of Terror left me feeling somewhat, well, empty.

I know that 22 minutes doesn’t give the writers much time to play with, but even so, I can’t help thinking that a few minor tweaks could have transformed a well-animated, well-voiced diversion into something special.

And just to be clear, I’m NOT comparing this short with the entire Pixar canon; to do so would open up a whole new discussion on idolatry of Pixar, and it’s too early in the morning for that.

A few flies in the ointment

Humour

The first (and least damning) annoyance was the humour; some of the jokes were obvious and silly, but given that the story was aimed at kids, I can shrug that off. Besides, that just comes down to personal taste.

The Case of the Missing Terror

This was a Halloween special, and although the black-and-white horror movie opening was promising, it quickly switched to a pretty standard tale about a self-serving villain who steals toys and sells them online (yes, he’s a lot like the bad guy from Toy Story 2). By the time the short had finished, it was so far from spooky that I had forgotten it was meant to be a Halloween special. It was as if they had dusted off an old story and slapped a Halloween sticker on it to shift more units. That sounds awful, but that’s how it felt.

Toy Story of Terror - the spookiest bit

“This is what comes of building Toy Story 2 on an Indian Burial Ground!”

Mr Pricklepants

The thing that really didn’t work for me was Mr Pricklepants’ running commentary. That got old within the first few minutes; by the end I was inwardly cringing every time the hedgehog opened his mouth.

The Dreaded Mr Pricklepants

“Look, I really DID sing backup vocals for Scorpions!”

I’m not criticizing Timothy Dalton’s performance; he did a great job. I just question the judgement of the person who thought it would be a good idea to identify plot points while they are occurring. Way to pull us out of the story, Mr. Poopypants. Perhaps they wanted to reassure their young viewers that it’s ‘only a story’. If so, this reveals a complete misunderstanding of their audience, because kids love to be frightened. An alternative explanation is that that the writers just thought it would be amusing to their adult viewers; if so, it was a misfire. I found it to be tonally jarring, and a strangely cynical, self-aware element to inject into a kids’ Halloween special about talking toys.

The Story Structure

I can’t say the fundamental story structure was necessarily flawed; if anything, it was a lesson plucked straight from Storytelling 101. Here’s a quick breakdown:

The simple 4-step story

  1. We’re introduced to the main characters
  2. Our heroine is revealed to have a deep-seated fear
  3. The main characters are placed in peril
  4. In order to save the main characters (and herself), the heroine must overcome her greatest fear

Pretty solid, right? There’s nothing terribly wrong with that structure, so why did it fail to move me? Why didn’t I care? Why didn’t I get that great, slam-dunk, “YES!!!!” feeling at the climax?

A Crack in the Foundations

Let’s talk about that key scene where Jessie ‘finds a way’ to overcome her fear.

By this stage, we’ve learned that Jessie has a phobia of being locked inside a box. However, in order to save her friend, Woody, that’s precisely what she has to do. It is only by allowing herself to be packaged, and transferred to his location on the courier’s truck, that she can bust him out. She initially resists, but is inspired to bravery by Combat Carl’s battle-cry: “Jessie never gives up! Jessie finds a way!”

The plan works; Jessie is transferred to the courier truck, and she hears the boxed-up Woody calling to her nearby. Unfortunately, escape from her own cardboard coffin is no simple matter, as the human courier has diligently taped the box shut. With claustrophobia setting in and the walls seeming to close in around her, Jessie battles to keep a level head.

Suddenly, she remembers what Carl said to her (not five minutes beforehand, mind you), and pulls herself together. With a cry of “Jessie never gives up, Jessie finds a way!”, she rummages around the bottom of the box, beneath all the packing foam, and finds…

…a paperclip.

What? The solution is a random paperclip at the bottom of the box?!

Anyway, she uses the paperclip to cut the tape sealing the box and escapes. It’s beautifully animated, but honestly, I’m not quite sure what they were thinking.

Clippy strikes again

clippy

“It looks like you’re trying to escape from a box; would you like help?”

This paperclip is more than just an annoyance; it’s a major problem, and here’s why:

  1. The paperclip comes out of absolutely nowhere. We don’t see it being placed in the box, and nor does Jessie.
  2. The solution to the problem came down to chance. Jessie needed a quick and easy solution, and there it was.

The random appearance of a paperclip skates suspiciously close to a deus ex machina, and nobody likes those. Why? Because it’s cheating.

Maybe I’m a harsh taskmaster, but Jessie didn’t truly earn her success. She looked for something – once – and found it. She didn’t have to recall an earlier lesson, or demonstrate a skill previously learned, or solve a problem. She simply stopped freaking out and – voila! – the answer was there. Is that what we’re teaching kids these days? And life-lessons aside, is that really the best we can do in terms of building a solid story?

Building a Better Climax

Here’s one solution to the problem:

Jessie’s new (and possibly improved) story arc

  1. Demonstrate Jessie’s fear of being cooped up in a box (they already do this, so it’s not a change to the basic plot).
  2. Go one step further and show how Jessie’s fear clouds her ability to think straight; demonstrate how her panic leads her to make bad decisions.
  3. Show the villain placing a document and paperclip inside the packing box, and allow Jessie to see him doing this.
  4. Later, when Jessie is trapped in the box, show her panic and defeat, then show her overcoming her fear to think straight. Once she is thinking clearly, she recalls the paperclip at the bottom of the box and retrieves it.
  5. Show Jessie liberating herself from the box. She’s earned it.

No doubt there are better, more exciting solutions to the problem, and I’m certainly not claiming that I can write a better story than the folks at Pixar; this example is merely intended to demonstrate how a relatively minor tweak can reclaim the story from the hand of God, and place it back where it belongs: within the Protagonist’s control. It just takes a little attention to detail.

The End

For a story’s climax to come together well, it has to tie together a few different threads. Ideally, the viewer/reader should initially feel surprise, but upon reflection, would recognise the inevitability of the conclusion. In other words, the story was building up to this precise resolution all along. That’s what delivers that awesome emotional catharsis, and it’s something that Pixar has traditionally done very, very well, with astounding consistency.

Toy Story of Terror had none of that, which indicates that it wasn’t built correctly. We did get a good look at Jessie’s character, but that’s not a story. That’s just stuff happening.