The James Clayton Column: The true horror of Toy Story

This Halloween's Toy Story Of Terror leaves James contemplating the horror undertones lurking in the Pixar franchise...

Toy Story Of Terror! is a new 22-minute short film produced by Pixar in time for Halloween. This is a timely and tantalising prospect, because we like Toy Story and we like watching scary movies (even if they are only mini-movies) at this time of year. The TV special has already aired in America, and British screens (well, those with Sky Movies) get the seasonal gift this weekend.

Pixar’s fresh short feature offers audiences the following – an original Toy Story tale about characters we know and love, coloured with extra terror. The title tells us this much, and they’ve punctuated it with an exclamation mark so you know it’s going to be super-fun and super-terrifying.

Typed out as Toy Story Of Terror it sounds pretty feeble. Add that punctuation mark: Toy Story Of Terror! “Aah I can’t look!” exclaims a hugely frightened Rex the Dinosaur, messing his metaphorical pants which are entirely metaphorical because Mattel never provided their plastic prehistoric lizard models with underwear. Yes, that’s better. Now we’re anticipating something really exciting: a must-see television event in which everyone’s favourite computer-animated playthings encounter genre-specific hijinks and face thrilling peril.

Some audiences may find the mash-up of Toy Story and horror a little odd but, if you think about it, this move makes a lot of sense and isn’t anything new for Pixar. Throughout its history the animation studio has always ensured that fear is a vital element underscoring its eclectic range of family-friendly features.

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Disney animations are frequently shrugged off as safe kids’ fare but you only need to linger a little on the antique likes of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Bambi and Pinocchio to see that the House of Mouse has peddled dark material ever since the early days. Moving on through the ages you find sequences in Sleeping Beauty, The Rescuers and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame that are extremely unnerving and actually succeed in being more affecting and effectively traumatic than anything many out-an-out adult horror movies manage.

Disney subsidiary Pixar has continued this proud (?!) tradition in their animated masterpieces, subversively foregrounding a sense of dread and subtle horror elements within the apparently sweet tales they craft for universal enjoyment. Look at all these lovely movies from a slightly different angle and you find a whole new world of fear and loathing in between the frames. The real conspiracy isn’t the Pixar ‘One Universe’ Theory propounded by Jon Negroni – it’s that the studio are making terrifying horror movies of different subgenre flavours and pretending that they are fun, family-friendly entertainments.

It’s a grand macabre masquerade and, if you don’t believe me, look to the magnificent evidence before your eyes. WALL·E is perhaps the most poignant, and distressing depiction of Earth’s post-apocalyptic future yet committed to film. A Bug’s Life revolves around sinister circus freak creepy crawlies, Ratatouille puts vermin in the kitchen and Cars rides around a dystopian nightmare where all the automobiles have come to life and taken over the planet. At the core, these concepts are pure horror and written down on paper and whispered beneath dimmed lighting they take on an insidious hue.

Mark the monsters of Monsters, Inc. and Monsters University, note the silent Angel of Death that pervades the heartbreaking beginning of Up and see how Brave forces children to face the most abhorrent notion ever conceived – the idea that your mother may turn into a bear.

Finding Nemo is upsetting if you forget its comical dialogue and lush ocean colours and come to clearly see it as the story of a fish who has lost his child and another fish who has lost her memory. In some way, all these films are about major loss and that brings us to Toy Story which out of all Pixar properties is the most loss-obsessed and, in total, the most harrowing.

The trifecta is traumatic and anyone who’s ever sat through these films and been moved by them all knows this to be indubitably true. Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 make up an unholy trinity of abject horror and the explicit embrace of genre stylings in Toy Story Of Terror! is simply an organic progression and a chance for the franchise to showcase its true nature on TV at Halloween.

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As the short feature enters your living room and casts its fearsome influence over your television set, I’d like to take a quick trip back through the series to point out a few examples that prove its essential darkness. The movies feature a variety of different conventions from different horror forms including physical horror, psychological anguish and philosophical dread. Playtime’s over, kids. Recoil and writhe in despair as I list some of the beloved saga’s many sinister attributes. Look upon Andy’s bedroom with wide-open eyes and be afraid. Be very afraid…

Sid

Let’s start at beginning with the first and most sadistic lead villain of the Toy Story franchise. Even more awful than greedy Al of Al’s Toy Barn, even stinkier than Stinky Pete and even more disturbed than that strawberry-scented tyrant Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, Sid Phillips is pretty much a juvenile Satan with braces and a black skull t-shirt for extra intimidating effect.

Travis Bickle seems well-adjusted compared to this underaged monster – a repulsive creep who gets a kick out of torture and grotesque kitbashing experiments. His cameo in Toy Story 3 as a garbageman suggests that he may have matured and reformed to some level of social decency though it’s important to remember that he only changed his behaviour after Woody pulled some headspinning stunts straight out of The Exorcist.

Body horror

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All it needs is a few chants of “One of us! One of us!” and Sid’s room is a remake of Tod Browning’s Freaks. The mutant toys – the poor victims of a twisted 10-year-old’s mad scientist complex – are the kind of tragic figures you find in many monster movies and they are genuinely creepy. Baby Face – a cyclopean porcelain infant head on Meccano spider legs – is easily the most hideous of them all.

Turning to Toy Story 2 we find further B-movie deformity distress in the form of Wheezy, the cabaret singer who’s lost his squeak. I see him as a pretty-benign plastic penguin parallel to The Abominable Dr Phibes and further body horror can be found in the figure of Mr Potato Head (no control over his bits at all) and Woody’s ripped arm (which gets to be abnormal and oversized after the stitch-up job). Reappraised in this dark light I discern Cronenbergian touches and find that the Toy Story tales have a heavy malformed foot in body horror territory.

You are a toy?

Approach Toy Story with the mindset of one of the existential detectives from I Heart Huckabees (honestly, it’s a horror movie) and you may find yourself experiencing a world-shattering “How am I not myself?” crisis from which recovery is impossible. Buzz Lightyear is a Space Ranger. Suddenly his belief/delusion is challenged by a cowboy who tells him that he is a child’s plaything and that his entire identity is an artificial sham. What is the truth? What is real? What if your whole identity, purpose and universal understanding are all a lie?

Here Toy Story shares the same challenges to sense of self and accepted reality explored in several recent bleak sci-fi movies that I won’t name in case I spoil their shocking plot twists. The trilogy acts as a profound reminder that the world around you is not what it seems and that you are, in fact, a manipulated plaything subject to the whims of greater omnipotent powers and cosmic purposes beyond your basic comprehension. A simple, cosy kid’s movie? It’s more like a Philip K Dick or Franz Kafka novel.

The alien invasion

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There are so many of them and they’re all exactly the same and they all zealously worship a supreme malign deity named “The Claw”. In the Little Green Men, I perceive an Invasion Of The Body Snatchers-style plot with an extra evangelical religious element. The squeaky little aliens start their megalomaniac mission in the arcade machines of Pizza Planet, spread to America’s suburbs and from there it’s the world and, indeed, the entire Universe.

Emperor Zurg isn’t the greatest threat to the galaxy – really it’s the advance of the little three-eyed folk who won’t stop until they are ubiquitous and have implanted their homogenous culture in everyone’s bedroom, spreading The Claw’s reach to infinity and beyond.

Growing old

The most horrific aspect of the Toy Story franchise is present in every film but it really hits hard when you reflect on the series as a whole and assess your own personal relationship to it. That dreaded fundamental theme is age and the issue of growing old. Just as Andy’s toys struggle with the unstoppable march of time and unwelcome change over and over, we the audience likewise find our own fears and resistance to alterations in comfortable familiarity projected on to the screen.

Many of us grew up with these movies and found their development from child to later-adolescence mirrored in the shape of Andy. Thus we eventually come to the point in Toy Story 3 where Andy puts away (or, rather, gives away and leaves behind) his ‘childish’ things and grows up to compete with the soul-destroying ‘real world’ (though as we’ve already established, that reality may be false reality). We used to be so happy together and now it’s all been ripped apart and we’ve flooded the cinema auditorium with our tears by the time the credits have come around.

It’s the trauma of aging and the tyranny of time whacking us all and making as weep as we’re forced to confront our own mortal temporality and the loss of childhood as we are propelled into the bleak morass that is adulthood and, in the long run, eventual decrepitude from which no space ranger or cowboy doll can save us.

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There are many more examples of the series’ link with horror – I’ve not mentioned Toy Story 3′s incinerator, the vicious brutality of the Sunnyside Daycare toddlers and the fact that the final film is directed by the world’s number one fan of The Shining – but, to be honest, I’m in too intense a state of agitation to carry on.

I hope Toy Story Of Terror! cheers me up and exorcises some of the fear. If not, Pixar can pay for therapy.

James Clayton is not flying. He’s falling with style into a pit of despair and pure unadulterated dread that deserves more than a PG certificate. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter. 

You can read James’ last column here.