Credit: Disney/Pixar/ABC
  • Movie

Want to give your kids a horror-film education — but think they’re just a little too young to watch Drew Barrymore get dismembered? Here’s a simple solution: Just plop them in front of Toy Story of Terror, a sitcom-length special that debuts on network TV tonight.

Older fans are, of course, welcome to enjoy the show as well — like any Pixar property, it’s designed for viewers of all ages. (Anyone 20ish or older will be especially amused by a new character called Combat Carl, voiced with perfect action-hero bravado by Rocky and Arrested Development star Carl Weathers.) But younger viewers stand to gain the most, since TSoT isn’t just a short featuring some of the studio’s most beloved characters; it’s a genuinely spooky half-hour that doubles as a clever, concise deconstruction of horror as a genre.

Toy Story of Terror opens with the denizens of Bonnie’s toy box — Buzz, Woody, Jessie, and the rest, all played by the original film series’ big-name voice actors — huddling together as they watch an old-fashioned black-and-white vampire movie. Their viewing session is frequently punctuated by commentary from Mr. Pricklepants, a lederhosen-clad stuffed hedgehog who speaks with Timothy Dalton’s highfalutin diction. “Patience,” he advises a restless Mr. Potato Head. “All great horror films start slowly! You see, they’re designed…” At this point, Potato Head pops out his ears so he doesn’t have to listen to Pricklepants’ lecture.

Even so, Pricklepants doesn’t let up — explaining that a wooden stake through the heart is the only way to kill a vampire and noting the “classic misdirection” of a heroine being spooked by a cat. And once the special’s actual plot begins in earnest — a flat tire strands the toys and their owners in a creepy roadside motel — Pricklepants’ genre-savvy comments only increase in frequency. They’ve found themselves in “one of the most common locales for a horror film,” the hedgehog tells us. “Remote, isolated, ordinary. A comforting environment to allay the suspicions of the audience. I expect they’ll be asking the innkeeper to use the telephone any minute now.” A moment later, of course, Bonnie’s mother does just that.

A riff on classic scary stories follows, complete with a monstrous assailant who picks off the toys one by one. And all the while, Pricklepants continues to explain exactly what we can expect to see next — until he, too, is downed by the beast. (Spoiler alert, just in case you’re getting worried: Everything turns out OK in the end.) He’s basically the Jamie Kennedy of Toy Story of Terror: A horror-movie geek who tries to assuage his own terror and that of his friends by continually breaking the fourth wall.

The result is predictably charming, even if it can’t necessarily carry the same sort of emotional heft as the Toy Story movies themselves. (After all, its writers had just 22 minutes of screen time to fill — opting for jokes over depth makes sense in this context.) It’s a metatextual analysis of horror that also manages to be entertaining in its own right, sort of like a Muppet Babies parody for a new generation.

Toy Story of Terror certainly won’t make you weep, and it probably won’t make you scream. But it does provide a great beat-by-beat distillation of the horror film as a formula — perfect for current experts, or future buffs.

Toy Story
  • Movie
  • 81 minutes
  • John Lasseter