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There’s a Toy Story Christmas special airing tonight, and it’s wonderful

Trixie the Triceratops is the central figure of Toy Story That Time Forgot.
Trixie the Triceratops is the central figure of Toy Story That Time Forgot.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

There is a new Toy Story Christmas special on tonight, and it is wonderful. If you like the characters or the world of the film series, you owe it to yourself to check this out. It airs on ABC at 8 pm Eastern and is followed by the classic Charlie Brown Christmas, so you have a full hour of holiday delights on tap.

Though there's a new film on the horizon, Toy Story's shift to becoming a series of animated shorts and TV specials has proved surprisingly effective. The characters are beloved enough that they carry over enormous amounts of goodwill from their previous endeavors, and the shorter formats allow the creative team behind the projects to explore various bits of the world of toys that the three films couldn't get into, either because they were too esoteric or because they were one-joke concepts. (Consider, for instance, Partysaurus Rex, which is all about toys at bathtime. That's not a great idea for a feature, but it makes a great short film.)

Tonight's special, Toy Story That Time Forgot, is only nominally about the holiday season. It opens in the immediate aftermath of presents being unwrapped, before immediately jumping to a playdate between the toys' owner Bonnie and a young boy named Mason. This being a Toy Story project, things immediately go wrong, but in a fashion that calls back to the franchise's frequent explorations of what happens when kids ignore their toys and don't play with them.

Strangely, the brains behind Toy Story seem to believe that most toys would degenerate into some sort of Venn diagram intersection between "Lord of the Flies" and "religious cult" without proper supervision, and Toy Story That Time Forgot offers up just this, with a bunch of so-called Battlesaurs (just what it sounds like), who have formed their own society in Mason's bedroom. Neglected in favor of a video game console, the toys have formed an elaborate society seemingly based on the rules of those '80s cartoons designed to sell toys. (There are a lot of knowing winks to all the He-Man fans out there.)

Thus, the new special embraces another part of a toy's life that the films couldn't explore — the post-present unwrapping glut of playing with all the new toys — while simultaneously allowing for another strength of the post-films Toy Story franchise to take wing. The shorts and specials have turned their focus away from Woody and Buzz, for the most part, and toward the franchise's many, many enjoyable supporting characters.

Here, that focus is on Trixie the Triceratops, voiced by Kristen Schaal, and her work is a reminder that Schaal is one of the best voice actors in the business. Schaal's voice is so distinctive that this might seem impossible, but Trixie is different from Louise, her character on Bob's Burgers, or Mabel, her character on Gravity Falls. Trixie didn't get a lot of screentime in the films themselves, but Schaal's gifts always made for an intriguing hint of what might be possible with the character. Here's the payoff to that.

Okay, and you should also watch this because of a new character called Kittysaurus. I will say no more.

Toy Story That Time Forgot debuts tonight on ABC at 8 p.m. Eastern.

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