The cultural institution and multi-platform franchise known as "Toy Story" is nearly 20 years old, and still very much with us. There is a fourth film coming in 2017, turning a trilogy into a tetralogy — ensuring in the bargain two years of pre-release teasers; more immediately there is the quasi-holiday special, "Toy Story That Time Forgot," premiering Tuesday on ABC.
As in last year's Halloween special, "Toy Story of Terror!," which put cowgirl Jessie at the center of the action, and the theatrical shorts collectively known as "Toy Story Toons," original stars Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) take supporting roles. This show belongs to Trixie the Triceratops (Kristen Schaal), who longs for current owner Bonnie (Emily Hahn) to play with her as a dinosaur for once, rather than as a baby reindeer, goblin fairy or disgruntled coffee shop patron.
What seems a chance to get back to her reptilian roots arrives when she's taken on a play date, two days after Christmas. Along with Buzz and Woody, Wallace Shawn's Rex and an angel-kitty Christmas ornament (Emma Hudak) given to statements like, "Limitations are the shackles we bind to ourselves," she finds herself in a city — that is, a play set — of armored "Battlesaurs." Their commander (Kevin McKidd) has a romantic effect on her, and she on him.
"You are a puzzle, Trixie," he observes.
"Well, technically," she replies, "I'm a posable action figure."
Not to overstate the case, but there really is a kind of philosophical-spiritual element at work here, involving the nature of being, self-awareness, free will, and will freely surrendered. The toys (manufactured, sentient) regard themselves and one another as actors, but also as essences. ("You must not play the dinosaur," Timothy Dalton's Mr. Pricklepants tells Trixie. "You must be the dinosaur." "But I am the dinosaur," she protests.) Unplayed with by their owner, the Battlesaurs lack any sense of their own toyness; they believe the packaging, and it makes them dangerous.
Written and directed by cartoonist and animator Steve Purcell ("Sam & Max," "Brave"), who also voices the villain of the piece, it's a smart addition to a canon whose intelligence is already well established. Purcell's comic timing is splendid, as is his staging of the action scenes.
Between the horror-motel motif of "Terror!" and the Thunderdome elements of "Time," involving at one point the (offstage) evisceration of a sock monkey, TV has brought us some dark, if still basically slapstick Pixar.
But it's Schaal who makes the special sing. Currently a voice on "Bob's Burgers" and "Gravity Falls," but earlier known as a "Daily Show" correspondent and stalker Mel on "Flight of the Conchords," she's a demented pixie: There's a childlike quality to her voice that can turn flirty or formidable in an instant. She makes Trixie a well-rounded, full-bodied, delightful mix of vulnerability, playfulness, wit, sass and longing — sweet to the core but capable of cutting through the nonsense around her, saving the day, delivering the message.
'Toy Story That Time Forgot'
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)