LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - Effortlessly picking up where "Toy Story of Terror" left off, Pixar has delivered a second splendid ABC holiday special plucked from one of its signature franchises, "Toy Story That Time Forgot," again moving a peripheral character into the equivalent of a starring role. Funny, warm and not afraid to include gags clearly intended more for parents than their kids, it's the kind of production that keeps the franchise fresh (and crassly, merchandise flying off shelves) while waiting for yet another sequel.
The conceit could hardly be simpler: Little Bonnie has a play date with a friend, and takes a bag of her toys along. But once she gets there, the boy has a topnotch game console, and the more tangible diversions are quickly abandoned.
Left alone, the toys encounter a group of dinosaur-like playthings (a cross-pollination, essentially, of the "Transformers" and "He-Man" strains) that appear to be somewhat unclear on the whole "toy" concept. That leaves triceratops Trixie (voiced by Kristen Schaal) to try to help save her pals, while dealing with a warrior toy named Reptillus Maximus (Kevin McKidd). Written and directed by Steve Purcell ("Brave"), the fast-moving half-hour would seem to owe a debt
to a certain early "Star Trek" episode, thrusting Woody, Buzz and Rex into the roles of unlikely gladiators. Yet there are also some rather priceless bits worked into it -- including a Christmas message, a sly "Star Wars" homage ("I find their lack of armor ... disturbing") and an adorable little toy called Angel Kitty, who spouts disarming lines of Hallmark-card wisdom.
Tom Hanks and Tim Allen reprise their familiar roles, but as with "Toy Story of Terror," which centered on Jessie, they play a relatively minor role -- one that impressively demonstrates the breadth and depth of the franchise's bench.
Synergy is often overrated, but in this case, ABC's connection to Disney yields obvious dividends, providing what should be a ratings boost, while ensuring "Toy Story" remains present in the minds of children -- and not incidentally, those who buy them holiday gifts. (Disclosure: My wife works for a unit of Disney.)
Beyond such practical concerns, however, "Toy Story That Time Forgot" -- which will be paired the perennial "A Charlie Brown Christmas" -- actually fulfills that time-honored tradition of delivering genuine family fare around the holidays. And for at least one night, anyway, the spirit of specials past has a friend in ABC.