Since the release of Toy Story 3 in 2010, there have been a number of smaller adventures featuring the Toy Story characters, and each of them have been just as charming, hilarious, and inventive as the one before. While the film franchise might have taken a temporary pause (set to resume with Toy Story 4 in 2018), the universe has been as active as ever, with three dizzyingly wonderful short films (“Hawaiian Vacation,” “Small Fry,” and “Partysaurus Rex”) and two heartwarming holiday specials (Toy Story of Terror and Toy Story That Time Forgot). While all of these short films are amazing and add to the overall storyline of the series brilliantly, today I want to talk specifically about Toy Story That Time Forgot.
Toy Story That Time Forgot first aired in December 2014 on ABC, and was previewed at San Diego Comic-Con earlier that year, in a deliriously entertaining panel moderated by composer Michael Giacchino, that I was lucky enough to attend. In the special, Trixie (Kristen Schaal) and the rest of the gang (including Buzz and Woody, voiced once again by Tim Allen and Tom Hanks) visit a friend of Bonnie’s named Mason, just after Christmas. He’s gotten a complete set of Battlesaurs—fearsome dinosaur warrior action figures, who don’t know that they’re toys because Mason has been too wrapped up in the new video game system he’s gotten for Christmas to actually play with them. Trixie and the rest of the toys from Bonnie’s marvel at the elaborate world of Battlesaurs (“Prehistoric buildings, dinosaur cars,” Trixie goggles), but soon their interaction becomes hostile and the Battlesaurs force the toys into gladiatorial combat. Of course, with the help of Bonnie’s toys, the Battlesaurs come to find their true purpose, and Mason re-engages with the endless possibilities of imaginative play.
The fact that a story that is so sweet and sincere is wrapped inside a toothy old school sci-fi adventure is just one of Toy Story That Time Forgot’s many pleasures. It’s also a fantastic Christmas classic that heavily features futuristic dinosaur gladiators battling one another in an ancient arena, which is always good.
The special was written and directed by Steve Purcell, a legendary comic book creator and video game auteur who also co-directed and co-wrote Disney•Pixar’s Brave, and provided additional story material for both Ratatouille and the Cars series. And you can feel Purcell’s distinct sensibilities all over Toy Story That Time Forgot: the elaborately conceptualized world, the anarchic spirit, the sly humor, and the nostalgic ode to a bygone era (in this case macho action figures from the 1980s). So it was a thrill to jump on the phone with him to chat about all things Toy Story That Time Forgot.
“We had a shorts group at the time that was doing some pieces that had to do with the Toy Story franchise and the Cars franchise. I was asked to work on a short that had to do with dinosaurs. So we had some thoughts about something that had Trixie and Rex in it. I proposed this idea of a play date where Trixie and Rex go meet these dinosaur action figures, and they are action figures we remember from the ‘80s, these little muscle-y guys with dinosaur heads,” Purcell said about the origins of the special. “And I worked on that for quite a while.” Initially, the concept was for a short film, along the lines of “Hawaiian Vacation” (which ran for six minutes) and “Small Fry” (which clocked in at seven minutes), which Purcell delivered. But, according to Purcell, Toy Story creator John Lasseter “became enchanted with these Battlesaur characters we created for the short” and asked if Purcell and his team could “expand the short into a half-hour project.” Thus, the primetime Christmas special Toy Story That Time Forgot was born.
Purcell initially found himself enthralled with “the idea of Bonnie from Toy Story 3 as this force of creative play.” “I loved that she was a character who could make play out of anything. She wasn’t tied to the conceit of whatever the toys she was playing with were,” Purcell said. “So I liked the idea of her bringing that joy and that idea of inspirational play to Mason, who has grown out of his toys a little bit.” This central conceit, present in the shorter version, developed as the storyline was expanded to a longer runtime.
But even going from six minutes to 22 wasn’t enough for the story, with its intricate mythology and dozens of new characters, to be fully explored. (There’s a hilarious special feature on the home video release of Toy Story That Time Forgot where story supervisor Derek Thompson ties himself in knots trying to explain every aspect of the Battlesaur world.) “It’s an epic saga,” Purcell admits. “It was like cramming a feature-length story into a half-hour show and it was fun to create this whole civilization. It was great giving these outrageous ideas logic and a purpose.” It was John Lasseter who encouraged the team “to figure out how the play set worked.” And they did. “All of those characters in the Battlesaurs play set has a role in the world,” Purcell said. “We figured out a backstory for everybody.” And he means everybody.
One character that Purcell paid particularly close attention to is The Cleric, the villainous wizard that pulls the strings in the Battlesaur society (and eventually forces Woody and Buzz into combat). Lasseter suggested that the character have a metal arm. “So he’s got this bionic crude metal arm as part of his design,” Purcell, who also ended up voicing the character (hilariously), said. “We had to think it through like, How would he have gotten that? There’s all these little nuggets of information that were a part of the world, in our mind, but never got onto the screen. It felt like it was all in the background, informing the characters.” For his vocal performance Purcell said he channeled his “favorite villains from movies, from Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes to Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life and the evil Emperor from Star Wars.”
Re-watching Toy Story That Time Forgot it’s fun noticing little things that might have passed you by before. (This is a Disney•Pixar film, after all.) “We got this idea that going forward, as we got deeper into the Battlesaurs world, the genre elements would take over the world,” Purcell said. “If you look at the show again, the lighting shifts and the walls of the room go away, the deeper we get into the Battlesaurs world.” This concept was aided by Giacchino’s amazing score, which Purcell said, “really dominates the world as well.” And continuing with the Planet of the Apes theme, there’s a horn in the score that was used during the orchestration of the original Planet of the Apes score as well (by Jerry Goldsmith, who Disney fans will recognize as the composer of music for Mulan and Soarin’). Purcell still sounds dazzled by this particular connection. “Just to be in the room with those horns was just amazing,” he told me.
The biggest legacy that Toy Story That Time Forgot is indebted to though is the Toy Story franchise itself. “It’s daunting if you think about it too much, adding something to the Toy Story universe,” Purcell said. “You want to be really true to the original characterizations, especially Woody and Buzz. It’s always something that’s on your mind–that everything feels true. What was nice about creating the new characters was that there’s a little more leeway to look for a new angle on a character that we haven’t met before in the Toy Story world.” Purcell has heard back from people who “understood what we were trying to do with the ‘80s style action figures and appreciated that throwback” and those who have added Toy Story That Time Forgot to their list of holiday favorites (a sure sign that its charm, emotion, and humor have resonated well). “I’ve talked to people who have young boys and they would demand to watch the show over and over, multiple times a day, during the Christmas season,” Purcell said with a laugh.
Another sign of the special’s longevity and power is that there are still toys being produced that are based on it. (I’m currently on the hunt for a just-released two-pack featuring Ray-Gon and Angel Kitty.) Purcell sounds surprised and overwhelmed by the fact that toys are still coming down the line. “It was great to hear that there were going to be toys and I really liked the job they did on them,” Purcell said. “And it was nice to have some additions to the toy line coming out over time. That’s such a great surprise.”
Since the Toy Story world is one that is cumulative, with characters introduced in Toy Story 2 appearing in Toy Story 3, and many of the new characters introduced in Toy Story 3 spilling over into the shorts and specials, I had to ask: Is there a possibility that dashing Battlesaur leader Reptillus (played by Kevin McKidd) could find his way into Toy Story 4? “I can’t count on it but since they’re in the palette, I hope they turn up somehow,” Purcell said, sounding very zen. “If you add something to the world, you hope it’ll be revisited. But I’m not counting on it one way or another.”