Thanksgiving weekend 2015 will mark the 20th anniversary of the original Toy Story, and though the franchise that built Pixar received a perfectly good wrap-up in Toy Story 3, a third feature-length sequel is due in 2017. Sequelization has yet to take its toll on the inhabitants of Andy and Bonnie’s playrooms, but it’s not concern for beloved characters that makes Toy Story 4 a dubious prospect; it’s whether those characters would be best served by another 90-minute adventure. As Pixar has demonstrated through abbreviated efforts like the laugh-a-second theatrical short “Small Fry” (featuring the debut of Internet sensation DJ Blu-Jay), good Toy Storys can come in small packages, too.
On the heels of last year’s Toy Story Of Terror, the new Christmas-themed Toy Story That Time Forgot suggests that Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and company could have just as rich a future in seasonal TV programming. An improvement over the Halloween special’s Toy Story 2 redux, Toy Story That Time Forgot attests to the strengths of this fictional universe by relying on its deep bench of supporting players. The cowpokes and the spaceman take a back seat to the dinosaurs in the new special, a tale about the boundlessness of imagination starring Kristen Schaal’s winsome plastic triceratops, Trixie.
Accustomed to stealing scenes in two of television’s best animated series, Bob’s Burgers and Gravity Falls, Schaal gets a well-earned showcase in Toy Story That Time Forgot. Schaal’s capacity for wonder enlivens a plot that harkens back to the first Toy Story, as a post-Christmas playdate brings Trixie into contact with a clan of ’roided-out dinos with a collective Buzz Lightyear complex. The enthusiasm in Schaal’s voice also makes the actress a poignant vessel for disappointment, and the emotional crux of the special rests on a uniquely Toy Story identity crisis: Would Trixie be happier in the personality determined by her manufacturer (like her new acquaintances, the Battlesaurs), or would she rather give herself over to the whims of her owner? And how does that figure into who she is when Bonnie isn’t around?
That Toy Story That Time Forgot can honor such a premise in less than 30 minutes is remarkable; that it does so with a tremendous sense of humor, character design, and action is par for the course. But much like the soulful blank canvases Bonnie totes around in her rocket-ship backpack, Toy Story can be whatever the people in control want it to be, so the franchise is always ready to surprise. Working within a palette that’s one part Dark Crystal and one part Land Of The Lost, this latest installment apes the cinematic sweep of a vintage gladiator film one minute, then uses a silent chase scene to deliver its big gut-punch the next.
And it does all of this without relying too heavily on its marquee names: The limited time Tom Hanks and Tim Allen can give to these projects is the most important thing to ever happen to Toy Story, as it’s required Pixar staffers like That Time Forgot director Steve Purcell to build supporting players into figures of the same weight and scale as a Woody or a Buzz. The breakout character of The Toy Story That Time Forgot, a Christmas tree ornament who accompanies the heroes on their journey, is more one-note than any of the regulars, but she’s also the special’s strongest tie to TV Christmas tradition. Then again, if anyone could turn an ornament into a full-fledged member of the gang in subsequent Toy Story specials, it’d be the folks at Pixar.
NBC’s new holiday cartoon, How Murray Saved Christmas, is more explicitly tied to that tradition—and the tradition of TV animation in general. It’s no Pixar effort, but its pedigree is almost as storied: It was written by Simpsons scribe and The Critic co-creator Mike Reiss (based on his storybook of the same name) and brought to life by Futurama animation studio Rough Draft. From its eponymous, crabby diner owner (voiced by Jerry Stiller) to its Woody Allen, Three Stooges, and Richard Nixon riffs, How Murray Saved Christmas is a throwback to the Simpsons-led resurgence in television cartoons during the 1990s. Unfortunately, with an hour-long timeslot to fill, it can’t use the same economy of storytelling perfected by Reiss’ other projects (or The Toy Story That Time Forgot).
Lacking the lean idiosyncrasy of its source material or the earnestly bananas absurdity of vintage Rankin-Bass, How Murray Saved Christmas comes across a bit like its protagonist, who bites off more than he can chew when he volunteers to fill in for an injured Santa Claus. At its core, there’s a nugget of wisdom within the special, all about seeing the potential for good in even the rottenest of personality types. But Reiss and director Peter Avanzino have to hack through a lot of padding to get there, and throughout the special, promising threads—Santa as a domineering Big Brother type; a cop (John Ratzenberger) under the mistaken impression that fill-in Santa Murray has stolen Christmas—are picked up but never fully connected. When that cop hangs a lantern on the special’s wavering commitment to its rhyming dialogue, How Murray Saved Christmas addresses these meandering tendencies—but it’s never full-bore bonkers enough for that type of joke to land.
The look of the special is a touch anonymous, but the personality in the characters and the performances compensates. The primary setting, a secret hideaway for holiday spirits with the decoy name Stinky Cigars (check the initials), fills the opening passages of How Murray Saved Christmas with feuding Presidents’ Day figureheads and a Punxsutawney Phil whose Groundhog Day anxiety gives him Woody Allen-esque conniptions. The songs, by Reiss and Seth MacFarlane fixture Walter Murphy, don’t boast any sticky melodies, but the lyrics hit their punchlines accurately, especially during a Mary Poppins sendup from the local physician, Doc Holiday (Jason Alexander). And a running gag about a forgotten celebration called Milkman Day makes for some good non sequitur, even as it stuffs Murray’s disposition with unnecessary motivation. Sentiment- and story-wise, How Murray Saved Christmas is all over the place, but its joke-telling abilities live up to the shiniest lines on its creators’ resumes.
Still, by stretching storybook pages to fill 42 minutes of screentime, How Murray Saved Christmas comes out looking thin. It’s a classic Christmas special conundrum: Song lyrics and bedtime stories don’t usually accommodate for ad breaks and midway tune-ins. Murray Saves Christmas gets inventive where it can, but its “Christmas is canceled” plot doesn’t have as much room for improvisation as the main storyline of The Toy Story That Time Forgot. Superficially, Murray Weiner has more in common with Rudolph, Frosty, and Charlie Brown, but they’re more likely to induct Trixie the triceratops into their ranks in the coming years.
The Toy Story That Time Forgot
Debuts: Tuesday at 8 p.m. Eastern on ABC
How Murray Saved Christmas
Debuts: Friday at 8 p.m. Eastern on NBC