Network TV specials are sparse in today’s big-studio market, but they’re far from dead. Pixar was a relative latecomer to primetime, but their first effort, Toy Story of TERROR!—on Blu-ray and DVD August 19th— was such a success for ABC, it’s already spawned another Pixar special premiering later this year. Here’s hoping it’s a trend.
ANGUS MacLANE: Toy Story of TERROR! harkens back to that “golden age” of holiday specials in the 1960’s and ’70s, like the Charlie Brown ones. Back then, these shows were a way to see animation over and over again, every year, on your TV. It was a great opportunity to work in that kind of tradition. Of course, Toy Story of TERROR! is the kind of thing you can watch all year round, just like your favorite horror movies and all that scary stuff.
GREG EHRBAR: Watching this film, it feels like, in a way, you’ve made “Toy Story 3.4”!
ANGUS: (Laughs) Yeah, it sort of takes off from the third movie with some of the same characters, only the focus is on Jessie and her journey from being afraid of being boxed in. We’ve brought back many of the Toy Story 3 characters and let each of them get their own moments in the story.
GREG: Since you were able to do just that when you juggled such a large group of toy characters in the Small Fry short [included on the new Blu-ray/DVD with Hawaiian Vacation and Partysaurus Rex], you seemed to be the heir apparent for Toy Story of TERROR!
ANGUS: Thank you. Small Fry was fun. I’m a great lover of toys. There are so many toys we got as kids that became part of who we are.
GREG: Both Small Fry and Toy Story of TERROR! introduced very funny toys. Did you come up with dozens of toy ideas and cull them down to your favorites?
ANGUS: The first thing was to cull the toys that already existed and decide how they could succeed in this narrative. Then we came up with weird toys from nonexistent toy lines. At that point, you need to decide the purpose each one serves for what the narrative is. In the classic heist or prison break movie, there is a “team of specialists” with a character for each function. So you map the functions you need and compare it to the list of characters you’d like to include. Of course, there were some toys I wanted very much to have, like Lego Bunny, so we’d find ways it could assemble and disassemble itself into whatever equipment was needed.
GREG: Yet even the minor characters have “issues” the audience can identify with. You mentioned in the commentary section that your mom and sister are psychologists. Does your familiarity with psychology come in handy in making the characters relatable?
ANGUS: In the film, the toys appear collected in the case you see in the film, have some sort of limitation, quirk, interest or desire. That’s what the audience wants to see, understand and “get” quickly so they can relate.
GREG: And except for the occasional wisecrack from Mr. Potato Head, the other toys seem to be pretty accepting of each other’s shortcomings.
ANGUS: They’ve been around each other for a while. I saw the characters like a rock band that had been together a long time. They love each other, but there are definite allegiances and alliances within the group. They each have a voice. When you have characters as clearly delineated as the Toy Story ones—or any of the great characters in literature and movies—you can put them in an appropriate situation and hear their “voices”, the way they will each react. Part of the task is to uncover scenarios that maximize the characters and their emotions and come up with a core story arc. In the case of Toy Story of TERROR!, the arc was the Jessie’s struggle to get her confidence back.
GREG: My family got a big kick out of the “commercials” on the Blu-ray/DVD. We watched them over and over.
ANGUS: Thanks! They were something I always wanted to do, something indicative of the time periods of the toys. I actually came up with a demo version of the “Old Timer” theme by singing into my iPhone as I was driving. Six months later, we were looking to do something with the DVD and Mark Walsh, who directed Partysaurus Rex, got a pitch together. We got these ideas ready to go, so if an opportunity came along, we could jump on them.
The Transitron commercial is what could have been an original Japanese commercial from the 70s—the sort of thing you might search for on youtube. The Combat Carl Public Service Announcement is indicative of the ones from the 80s that were attached to toy-related cartoon shows like He-Man. Old Timer was in the genre of commercial in which you would have the live action kid with his or her life “enriched” by their “relationship” with the toy. Actually, I always saw Old Timer as this kind of nasty passive aggressive who would constantly point out your flaws. It was trading on the detritus that we grew up with.
GREG: Pardon me for asking this one, because I know you can’t say anything about Finding Dory—but what can you tell me?
ANGUS: Uh…(laugh), not much! I mean, I can say I’m really excited to be working on it. I’ve been on it for a bit, and I love the team. I’ve worked with them before and I’m excited about it.
The Toy Story of TERROR! Blu-ray/DVD includes an audio commentary;
three Toy Story Toons (all with commentaries); commercials for Combat Carl, Old
Timer and Tranistron; a documentary short with Angus MacLane and the original
trailer seen at the D23 Expo.