Pixar Animation Studios is all about creativity. There’s a whole book about it. They take seemingly simple ideas and create beautifully animated, fully realized worlds filled with memorable characters. Could any other studio imagine a world of sentient toys that get nervous about new toys stealing their owner’s affection, but then need to convince the new favorite toy that it’s not a real person from outer space? Yes. The Jim Henson Company did exactly that.
Nine years before Toy Story launched an animation juggernaut, Jim Henson and his band of puppeteers released The Christmas Toy as a Christmas special on ABC. My family owned a VHS copy of this TV movie and, for reasons I neither remember nor understand, 5-7 year-old Kεv!n couldn’t get enough of it.
To quickly run through the premise (let me know if any of this sounds familiar): Rugby the Tiger is the favorite toy of his owner, Jamie. He and the other toys, who come to life whenever there are no humans around, are hanging out and having fun until they learn tonight is Christmas Eve. This means new toys are coming to hog all of Jamie’s attention. The exciting new toy is Meteora, a space queen that thinks she has crash landed on an alien planet. The other toys must convince her that she’s a toy so she’ll stop trying to escape Jamie’s house.
The idea of toys coming to life is generic enough, but the Meteora/Buzz plot theft is downright bold in its shamelessness. In their first scenes, both Buzz and Meteora ask what planet they’re on and perform a flying demonstration to prove they’re not toys.
There are plenty of other similarities:
- The main character’s best friend is an animal toy
- The main character’s jealousy about being overshadowed turns the other toys against him
- A pet attacks multiple toys
- The main character almost accidentally destroys the new space toy
- A female counterpart to a toy arrives in the final scene
I have to be fair to the Pixar creative team. Despite all these parallels, Toy Story is the far superior film. It’s a modern classic for adults and children, alike. Christmas Toy is a puppet musical with ugly puppets and bad music. It’s also bizarrely dark for a Christmas special; the toys are constantly under threat of freezing (a.k.a. dying) if their owners find them out of their proper place. A clown toy gets frozen while trying to save Rugby just 15 minutes into the movie. It’s fucked up.
So what’s the point of talking about this obscure 80s TV movie? Is it to call John Lasseter a creep who built his empire on stolen ideas? No. It’s to call John Lasseter a creep who built his empire on brilliant execution. Anyone can have a great idea. If anything, the crappiness of Christmas Toy proves that a great idea is not enough to make a great movie. Lasseter and the rest of the Pixar team succeed because they work tirelessly on every aspect of their films. With Toy Story, they could have let their groundbreaking animation overshadow a weak story or forgettable characters. Instead, they identified exactly the right plot elements to steal from Jim Henson, and crafted a brilliant story.
If you want to create something but don’t have any ideas, take the Pixar lead and rip off something else. As long as you work hard enough to make your product better, nobody’s going to mind.