Toy Story 3 may have picked up a 2010 Best Picture nomination and a couple of other Oscars (for Best Animated Feature and Song), but who knew the Toy Story gang would come roaring back into the Oscar race just four months later? That could be the case as Disney/Pixar is about to release the first of two newly minted Toy Story Toons. Hawaiian Vacation opens Friday with the studio’s 2011 animated feature hopeful, Cars 2. A second toon is planned to go with the release of The Muppets in November, making both eligible for the Best Animated Short Oscar this year and creating a situation where Disney/Pixar could be competing against itself. Several other ideas for future installments are also in development at Pixar.

For those who can’t get enough of the Toy Story brand (Toy Story 3 grossed over $1 billion worldwide since its release a year ago), the six-minute Hawaiian Vacation picks up where TS3 pretty much left off, with the characters now living together in new owner Bonnie’s bedroom where they plan a makeshift romantic island getaway for Ken and Barbie after Ken screwed up travel plans in the dead of winter. The short reunites the entire impressive cast including Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Michael Keaton, Joan Cusack, Jodi Benson and the rest.

“It’s amazing; it was one of the key issues we had in going ahead,” director Gary Rydstrom told me this morning. “We wanted to do it with all the cast, all the characters, so it was important to get all the actors on board with it, which they happily did. I don’t think it would have been possible without them.” Rydstrom is a Pixar vet since first contributing his expertise in sound to the studio’s classic short, Luxo Jr, in 1986. He’s also the winner of seven Oscars in the sound categories for films like Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 and has been nominated 14 times including one for his Pixar directorial debut, on the animated short Lifted, in 2006.

The common wisdom has been that if there was any cinematic future for Toy Story it would be in the form of a fourth feature, especially after the roaring success of TS3, but Rydstrom confirms there are no plans for that and the idea of doing Toy Story Toons came from John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer for Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. Just as the team was finishing work on TS3 last year, Lasseter suggested a continuation of the characters would be great as a short set in the world that exists after the end of that film. “It was possible partially because we had the world and characters all ready to go, but also because people were hanging  on to Toy Story and didn’t want to see it go away. It was a way to keep working on it,”  Rydstrom says.

The idea that clicked for everyone was about a guy (Ken) who tries to pull off a romantic vacation and screws it up, so with the help of all the other toys a “perfect” Hawaiian vacation is re-created in Bonnie’s bedroom. Lasseter, who was also very involved in its development despite being busy running the studio and personally directing Cars 2, signed off on it and the saga of the toys continues.

Rydstrom thinks animated shorts are the way to go, not another feature: “Toy Story 3 ended so perfectly. Let that be what it is. The shorts are a nice separate way to use the characters and see what’s going on in the world,” he says, adding that you can do things in shorts you can’t in a feature, like keeping it fast and funny without complications. “I think it’s the perfect way to keep Toy Story going and alive for the time being and to be able to work with these characters. I think it’s a wonderful idea.”

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt the continuing merchandising prospects of the Toy Story brand as the combo of Hawaiian Vacation and Cars 2 should have kids heading directly from theatre to toy store — or so Disney obviously hopes.