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Toy Story of Terror! Blu-ray + Digital HD Digital Copy Review

Toy Story of Terror! Blu-ray + Digital HD Digital Copy cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Toy Story of Terror!
Special & Blu-ray Disc Details

Writer/Director: Angus MacLane / Producer: Galyn Susman / Executive Producers: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton

Voice Cast: Tom Hanks (Woody), Tim Allen (Buzz Lightyear), Joan Cusack (Jessie), Carl Weathers (Combat Carl, Combat Carl Jr.), Stephen Tobolowsky (Ron the Manager), Timothy Dalton (Mr. Pricklepants), Wallace Shawn (Rex), Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head), Kristen Schaal (Trixie), Kate McKinnon (PEZ Cat), Lori Alan (Bonnie's Mom), Peter Sohn (Transitron), Emily Hahn (Bonnie), Dawnn Lewis (Delivery Lady), Jason "JTop" Topolski (Vampire, Tow Truck Guy), Ken Marino (Pocketeer), Christian Roman (Old Timer), Laraine Newman (Betsy), Tara Strong (Officer Wilson), Josh Cooley (Officer Phillips), Dee Bradley Baker (Mr. Jones)

Original Air Date: October 16, 2013 / Running Time: 22 Minutes / Rating: TV-G

1.78:1 Widescreen
7.1 DTS-HD MA (English), 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish), Dolby Surround 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish; Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Blu-ray Release Date: August 19, 2014 / Suggested Retail Price: $14.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50) / Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on DVD ($9.99 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

Buy Toy Story of Terror! from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + Digital HD Digital Copy • DVD • Instant Video

Back in the early 1990s, Toy Story was originally conceived as a half-hour television special. That would have made it Pixar Animation Studios' longest effort to date by far, but the company stretched their ambitions even further. The ensuing 81-minute comedy would almost single-handedly change animation.
Long practically the exclusive domain of Disney and their hand-drawn techniques, Toy Story introduced the now prevalent form of three-dimensional computer animation and ushered in an age of healthy competition that continues to represent a vast slice of filmmaking in terms of both commerce and art.

It took over twenty years, but Pixar has finally given us their first television special, inspired no doubt by renewed interest in the format from DreamWorks and Pixar's own creative partner Disney Animation. Fittingly enough, Pixar's first special is Toy Story of Terror!, expanding the universe of the film that started it all, a universe that already happens to be the company's most popular and successful. Premiering on ABC in the middle of last October and subsequently airing on a near-daily basis through Halloween on ABC Family, Disney Channel, Disney XD, and Disney Junior, Toy Story of Terror! drew big ratings for the Disney television empire. Next Tuesday, it reaches home video via DVD, digital download, and, the subject of this review, a Blu-ray + Digital HD Digital Copy edition.

Buzz Lightyear's glow in the dark feature comes in handy as he, Jessie, and Woody find themselves in the dark innards of the Sleep Well hotel in "Toy Story of Terror!"

Terror! opens with five of the former toys of Andy (Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Mr. Potato Head, Rex) and a couple of their new housemates (Trixie and Mr. Pricklepants) watching an old scary movie on a portable DVD player. They're in the trunk of the car that is taking their young owner Bonnie and her mother to a hotel on this stormy night.

Why would a girl bring seven toys on a road trip? Who knows? But if she didn't, we wouldn't be following these beloved characters on this adventure to a frightening new place. While Bonnie and her mother sleep,
the toys start vanishing, in true horror movie fashion, one at a time. Eventually, their disappearances are linked to a dog-like iguana who is rounding up not quite abandoned playthings for the hotel's manager, who is making some sweet side money by swiftly selling them in online auctions. That premise is close enough to Toy Story 2 to make you wonder about the narrative potential of this compelling franchise and to be grateful that it hasn't already significantly repeated itself.

The special introduces a number of other toys in the same boat as our heroes, separated from their owners and in danger of being resold to the highest bidder. Adding to the Toy Story tradition of eventually showing us characters previously mentioned by name, one of the new characters is Combat Carl (voiced by Carl Weathers), a seasoned man of action who has recently lost a hand.

Terror! looks to supply Pixar's signature emotional weight in the plight of Jessie, who early on is given this crippling fear of being in a box by herself. This personality trait doesn't make sense manifesting here and now, though, and instead of earning our sympathy, it renders the red-headed cowgirl uncharacteristically hysterical. You appreciate that the special's writer-director Angus MacLane, an animator on TS2, TS3, and many other Pixar shorts and features, tries to provide substance and make this more than just a kid-friendly comedic version of a horror movie. But limited to just over 21 minutes of show in a half-hour network timeslot, the program cannot squeeze in the same levels of conflict, depth, sophistication and maturity that distinguish the Toy Story films as some of the absolute best in modern cinema.

The disfigured Combat Carl and other toys are counting on Jessie to help them escape captivity and online resale.

After the delightful Toy Story 3 somehow lived up to basically all of the extraordinary expectations of those who had grown up with the first two films, the past few years have been kind of disappointing ones for Pixar. The indefensible Cars 2 easily emerged as a low point for the studio. The Mater-driven, European-set spy mystery bore perplexingly little resemblance to its predecessor, putting off hopeful fans just as much as those who weren't crazy about the heartfelt, small town original.

The misstep seemed forgivable; Pixar made one not so good movie that from any other animation studio wouldn't have seemed so bad. A year later, Brave rebounded commercially and its upset victory over Wreck-It Ralph at the Academy Awards seemed to start a new winning streak in the Best Animated Feature category that Pixar has won more than half the time. But many, myself included, do not hold Brave in the same high regard as the majority of Pixar films before it. The same could be said of Monsters University, another kind of head-scratching brand expansion, though at least a consistently entertaining one. It joined Cars 2 as the only Pixar films not to be nominated for the Animated Feature Oscar since the award was introduced in 2001.

After a delay of one project, this summer became the first since 2005 not to offer anything new from Pixar, a major disappointment for movie lovers, although one that should pay off as long as the company's two original films make it to theaters next year as scheduled and live up to their promise. (Some of the general public may not have even noticed or appreciated the downtime, should they regrettably yet understandably mistake DisneyToon Studios' inferior Cars spin-off series Planes for the work of Pixar.)

Other animation studios would be blessed to have a few years like these qualify as "disappointing", but Pixar's first fifteen years of ridiculously high quality feature films require them to be judged by a different standard. They can't just make an entertaining family comedy; it has to be an innovative, evocative, and technically spectacular work of art too. It's unfair, but it is Pixar who spoiled us by serving us such rare excellence again and again.

New characters, like Combat Carl, PEZ Cat, and Combat Carl Jr. work together with Buzz, Rex, and Mr. Potato Head in "Toy Story of Terror!"

The Toy Story brand has not been creatively marred like the merchandise-driven Cars one, but it's not altogether unscathed. Three original short films, called Toy Story Toons, have been fun and given us the pleasure of spending more time with these wonderful characters.
Buzz Lightyear Costume Jessie Costume
Woody Costume .. Alien Costume
However, they represent the franchise's first work since Saturday morning interstitials and the prologue to Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins to be deemed less than masterful and significant. That is the chief criticism I would level at Toy Story of Terror! as well. It's a diverting and well-made cartoon. It brings back original voice cast members and maintains the high production values of the far costlier and more lucrative feature films. It just feels awfully slight and unfulfilling for a franchise as strong as this one.

It's worth noting that although this first aired in proximity to Halloween and now comes to home video at the start of the same retail season, Toy Story of Terror! isn't so Halloweeny at all. In fact, it doesn't make a single reference to the holiday or even suggest that it is set around it.

VIDEO and AUDIO

As always, Video and Audio is the least necessary section of a Pixar review. In what should surprise absolutely no one, Toy Story of Terror! looks and sounds terrific on Blu-ray. Without performing a side by side comparison or seeing them on the big screen, the 1.78:1 visuals seem every bit as polished as Pixar's theatrical output. They also seem to look as terrific as the format's 1080p resolution allows them to. Offered in 7.1 DTS-HD master audio, 5.1 DTS-HD master audio, and simple Dolby 2.0 surround, the soundtrack is lively and engaging too, supplying complementary elements and some tasteful directional effects. The days of animated television specials looking cheap are long gone. As usual, Pixar tailors the foreign language versions for their audience, with onscreen text and credits reflecting your language selection for both the special and even the bonus shorts. Another Pixar disc staple, the Optimizer series of audio and video calibration tests, is also included here.

Ken and Barbie stay home, but still enjoy a "Hawaiian Vacation." Rex reinvents himself as "Partysaurus Rex", the cool dude who turns a bathtub into a rave.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Recognizing that people might not be in a hurry to buy a disc, even a low-priced one,
with a feature presentation that runs just 21½ minutes, Pixar has wisely added some real value to this set in the form of bonus features.

First up, Toy Story of Terror! is treated to an audio commentary by writer-director Angus MacLane, director of photography Ian Megibben, and editor Axel Geddes. They have no trouble talking over the whole special with reference to what's onscreen. They reveal influences and homage targets far beyond the obvious, from No Country for Old Men to Ricky Henderson to Counting Crows. They also display great interest in everything in the special, having clearly devoted much thought to every character, setting, gag, shot and detail. It's a worthwhile listen.

Video extras, obviously all encoded in HD, begin with the three aforementioned Toy Story Toons shorts. These are available on other Blu-rays (Pixar Short Films Collection, Vol. 2, Monsters, Inc.: Ultimate Collector's Edition, and Cars 2), but have all not been assembled in the same place until now.

Hawaiian Vacation (5:53), which accompanied Cars 2 in theaters, finds the toys treating Ken to a taste of Hawaii right at home after he fails to be taken on Bonnie's tropical winter vacation. Small Fry (7:06), which was attached to The Muppets, sees Buzz Lightyear switching places with a cheap, small fast food version of himself and reluctantly becoming part of a support group for cast-off kids' meal toys. Partysaurus Rex (6:34), released theatrically with Finding Nemo 3D, has the nervous green dinosaur reinventing himself as the life of the party, as he turns an empty bathtub into a full-on rave.

Each short is joined by an audio commentary. On Hawaiian Vacation, writer-director Gary Rydstrom, co-writer Jason Katz, and supervising animator MacLane sweat the details, reflect on the challenge of juggling 22 speaking parts in such a short time, and confess their animation cheats. MacLane speaks alone on Small Fry, which he wrote and directed. He reveals that he developed a backstory for every character created and shares the different emotional stages of them, drawing upon his family of psychologists. Partysaurus Rex's commentary features writer-director Mark Walsh, who we're told is missing a wrap party to record this (which I'm pretty sure is just a gag, but one reinforced by party sounds and calls for his return). Walsh, who's eventually joined by producer Kim Adams, editor Axel Geddes, and others, talks about relating to Rex, the score by BT, and the short's enthusiastic reception from young adults.

Angus MacLane and company observe an iguana in the name of art in "Team of Specialists." Cut from the special, brochures for tourist traps like Jurassic Water Park are preserved among the deleted scenes.

Next, "Team of Specialists" (11:53) is a making-of featurette which tags along with MacLane during a typical day at Pixar during the production of Toy Story of Terror! He meets with countless collaborators, from animators to editors, paying insane attention to detail in his feedback to them. Breaking from the one-day design, we even get glimpses of the ladies who record Foley sound effects, the iguana brought in as reference for Mr. Jones' animators, and an orchestra recording the score. (The only obvious thing overlooked is the voice cast, something Pixar always emphasizes less than other animation studios.) It's a winning piece reminding you just how much work went into making this little 21-minute cartoon.

A deleted scenes section runs 7 minutes and 23 seconds overall. It is comprised of a few cut scenes presented in story reel format with group and individual introductions by editor Axel Geddes. Unremarkable but still worth seeing, the deletions show us a pencil topper character, tourist brochures, extended hand retrieval, and an in-car game of road trip roulette.

This boy loves his decorative clock Old-Timer in a faux 1980s toy commercial. Combat Carl alerts these two kids about the dangers of uncovered coughing in this commercial modeled after G.I. Joe PSAs.

Perhaps the highlight of this set comes in three never-before-seen "Vintage Toy Commercials." An apparent offshoot of the convincing retro Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear commercial used to promote Toy Story 3,
these fake ads meticulously recreate the look and feel of real ones from the 1980s, promoting three toys introduced in Terror!: sassy not-a-working-clock clock man "Old-Timer" (0:47), Combat Carl in a 2D "G.I. Joe"-style PSA about the importance of covering coughs (0:59), and Japanese Transformers knock-off Transitron (0:52).

MacLane, who directed all three commercials, introduces the section (0:48). As a really bright idea, there is even the option to watch the special with one of these commercials playing at each of the special's three scheduled commercial breaks. Creatively extending the feature presentation to 23 minutes and 24 seconds, this may be the preferred way to watch the special henceforth.

Finally, a D23 Teaser (1:04) preserves the sneak peek of the special that paying members of Disney's official fan club saw a couple of months before ABC's first broadcast.

Disc-opening ads promote Disney Movies Anywhere, Sleeping Beauty: Diamond Edition, Frozen: Sing Along Edition, and Legend of the Neverbeast. The Sneak Peeks listing plays promos for Disney Movie Rewards, "Star Wars: Rebels", and Maleficent.

Toy Story of Terror!'s atmospheric black and white main menu, adapted from the invented horror movie at its opening, is a treat.

The highly appealing main menu cleverly adapts the old horror movie from the special's opening. The scratchy black and white visuals are joined not by score or clips from the special but howling wind, thunderclaps, hooting owls, and other creepy sounds in Dolby Digital 5.1. Likely to be my favorite menu of 2014, this seamless loop would make for a good screensaver at a Halloween party (just beware of burn-in!). Like other Disney Blu-rays, this doesn't resume playback or let you set bookmarks, but those aren't huge issues on such a short feature.

A Disney Movie Club ad and Disney Movie Rewards booklet holding your digital copy code accompany the full-color disc inside a side-snapped keepcase reproducing the same artwork of the embossed slipcover above.

Mr. Jones and me tell each other fairy tales.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I must confess that I would probably find Toy Story of Terror! far more entertaining if it wasn't an extension of my all-time favorite film trilogy. Hindered by the confines of a half-hour commercial timeslot, this TV special is occasionally diverting and technically superb but nothing more than that. The narrative pushes Jessie's trauma too far, resembles Toy Story 2 too closely, and fails to realize the potential of horror movie stylings afforded by the Halloween timing. Basically, it feels more like a triple-length Toy Story Toons short than one-third of a Toy Story film.

I've ragged on Pixar for putting too high a price tag on their compilations of short films that most already own on the Pixar films' Blu-rays and DVDs. This Toy Story of Terror! Blu-ray is reasonably priced and fun, imaginative bonus features add definite value to the set. (The lack of a DVD does seem like a curious decision, but one reflecting Disney's presumably unpopular move away from two-disc combo packs.) Still, this platter falls short of the must-own status that most of Pixar's feature output holds.

With another special scheduled to air in December (the Trixie-centric Toy Story That Time Forgot, which this release misses an opportunity to promote), the studio probably could have waited a year and sold both together on a single disc. And even then that's assuming we don't get another attractive complete Toy Story collection box set holding everything there is in a few years. Nonetheless, this Blu-ray provides a good special, great extras, and outstanding audio/video at a reasonable price. It all would be extremely satisfying if Pixar hadn't spoiled us for so long.

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Related Reviews:
Toy Story 3 • Toy Story 2 • Toy Story • Pixar Short Films Collection, Volume 2 • Pixar Short Films Collection, Volume 1
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Reviewed August 14, 2014.



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