The film takes place in one room and stars the toy of the title, a mechanical one-man band player named Tinny, and a huge baby named Billy. At first, Tinny is delighted at the prospect of being played with by Billy until he sees how destructive the latter can be, because Billy wants to play with and dribble on him. When Tinny tries to walk, his musical instruments on his back play notes. He then begins to run, but is chased by Billy, who pursues him. Tinny soon finds cover under the couch, and when he looks up, he sees that there are several other toys hiding, also afraid of Billy after learning the same experience. While walking and trying to find Tinny and the other toys, Billy falls down on the hardwood floor and begins to cry. Tinny, feeling sorry for himself and the baby, tries to go and cheer him up. When he does, Billy manages to cheer up, but then just ignores him and plays with the box Tinny came in. Mad, Tinny tries to follow Billy to get his attention, but is still ignored. Near the end of the credits, other toys hiding under the couch come out from underneath and begin to play.
A follow-up entitled A Tin Toy Christmas was planned as a holiday TV special. The plot involved Tinny being put into storage at a mall after he failed to sell, where he would have met with other toys who had had the same thing done to them. However, due to lack of funding for the project, it was dropped. Later, when Pixar and Disney collaborated on Toy Story, Tinny was to be the main character of the film. The original draft of Toy Story's script told the story of how Tinny got left behind at a rest stop and teamed up with a ventrloquist dummy in search of a new home. Later it was decided that both toys were too old-fashioned and they were replaced with Lunar Larry (later renamed Buzz Lightyear) and Woody respectively.
Tin Toy won the 1988 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, the first time a computer animated film had won in that category.
In 2010, Disney licensee MINDstyle produced a limited edition vinyl maquette of the character Tinny as an Art Toy Collectible. Created in a limited edition of only 500 pieces, the exterior box packaging was a faithful reproduction of the box seen in the toy short. In addition to containing the model of Tinny, it included a certificate of authenticity printed on a card with a pencil storyboard of a scene from the short.
- When the short premiered at SIGGRAPH, the short stopped abruptly at the point where Tinny saw Billy approach him from inside his box. This was fixed in all subsequent releases.
- One of the boxes that Billy is playing with near the end of the short wields the old Pixar logo on the bottom-left.
- At the beginning of the short, when the camera shows the entire room, there is a picture of a Luxo lamp at the top-right.
- A Tin Toy book can be seen stacked on Andy's bookshelf during the first Toy Story. The book is located on the second to the bottom shelf, and can be seen when Woody passes by Etch A Sketch before their duel, or when Woody talks at the toy meeting.
- The book's author is shown as "Lasseter." A reference to the director and writer of the short, John Lasseter.
- In Toy Story 2, when Hamm is flipping through the channels to find the Al's Toy Barn commercial, you can see brief clips of Tin Toy and other early Pixar shorts.
- Some of the toys from the short can be seen cowering under a table at Sunnyside when the kids come into the Caterpillar Room in Toy Story 3.
- Tinny can be seen under the bed in Lifted.
- In a bag the camera passes over toward the beginning, you can see the old Pixar logo in the top left corner.
- The picture on the table is an actual photograph of director John Lasseter.
- When Billy continues his search for Tinny and the other toys, Billy doesn't look where he is going, then falls flat on the floor, and bangs his head, looks up, but starts to cry.
- There is a message written in the credits for this short. It reads: "Any resemblance to actual toys or children is unintentional. To open, press down while turning cap. Pixar and RenderMan are registered trademarks of Pixar. Seatbelts save lives. No portion of this movie, including its soundtrack, may be reproduced in any manner or we won't be your friends anymore. This bag is not a toy. Keep out of reach of children."