Retro Review: Toys.
We celebrate the holidays with one heck of a bizarre movie featuring Robin Williams.
Earlier this month, we covered some of the most insane movies that were based on toys. This movie, though not based on any particular toy, certainly deserves a mention. It also happens to loosely be a Christmas movie, so what better time to look back on this odd duck of a film.
Starring the late, great Robin Williams, Toys is a surprising mess. The film is gorgeously staged and shot, features a plethora of talent, has an equally eclectic and stacked soundtrack, and features what would be a charming aesthetic in any other movie. Toys squanders all this on a ham-fisted message of backward-looking nostalgia, and is a dumpster fire of conflicting tones.
When Kenneth Zevo, a beloved and wacky toy manufacturer falls ill, he decides to leave his company to his estranged brother Leland, a paranoid and conservative military man. His oldest son, Leslie (Robin Williams,) shares his father’s whimsy and love of toys, but is seen as too naive and scatter-brained to helm the company. When Leland (Michael Gambon) takes the company over, he decides to focus on war toys, eventually creating a line of lethal toys that can be piloted by children via video games and sold to the military. Leslie and his flighty sister Alsatia (Joan Cusack) must team up with those who were loyal to his father in order to stop Leland and prevent the deadly toys from taking over the factory.
The Nice List
Since this review is going to get pretty negative, I figured I would get the film’s positive points out in the open first. Director Barry Levinson apparently spared no expense creating the riotous settings for this film, which are lush and vibrant. From the brightly colored toy factory filled with garish old fashioned playthings, to the pop-up book mansions that the Zevo’s live in, all the way to the rolling green hills that surround the factory, everything is vibrant and beautiful.
The music for the film is an amazing assortment, arranged by Hans Zimmer. It features artists such as Enya, Tori Amos, Seal, and Grace Jones. It even has a track from Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The soundtrack begins with light and ethereal tones and shifts gears to discordant and menacing before resolving back into variations on the opening theme. It is an interesting collection of talent.
Another interesting collection of talent is the cast. Robin Williams is pretty much playing Robin Williams in this film, packed with manic energy but also capable of serious notes and digressions into philosophical musings. Joan Cusack, though her character is jerked around for much of the film, plays Alsatia with odd dignity, like a dowager who sees all of the mess around her but remains regal. Michael Gambon is well known for playing straight-laced authority figures, and he’s well within his comfort zone here, though he manages some genuinely funny and quirky moments.
The supporting cast is strong as well. Robin Wright plays a new employee, the last one hired by Kenneth Zevo before his death. She was selected because she has the potential to understand and appreciate Leslie, and Wright plays her character as an audience surrogate, watching Williams’ antics and sharing in both the laughter and confusion that it elicits.
The real revelation here is L.L. Cool J. Cool James plays Patrick Zevo, Leland’s son who is a special forces soldier. Patrick helps his father to militarize the factory, but ultimately defects when he discovers the depth of his father’s mania. His shtick is being a master of disguise, a wonderful trope that sees him appear from anywhere. L.L. Cool J plays his character as a rigid dogmatist who is pretty much incapable of understanding whimsy, so he is a perfect foil for all of the fools that surround him. His performance ends up being the funniest aspect of the film, in a good way, and he is easily the most likable character.
The Naughty List
With all of those positives, how does Toys go so very wrong? Simply put, it ends up being a cacophony of mismatched elements that veers from silly and absurd to dark and mortifying and then back again. The film has a pervading vague menace to it. The old-timey toys are slightly grotesque, and many of Leslie’s inventions are gross and unfunny. The factory looks like it is trying very hard to imitate Willy Wonka‘s merry house of horrors (down to a testing room that looks like Mike Teavee is going to materialize from any moment.) Instead it ends up being an insane asylum. The storybook home for Leslie and Alsatia literally pops out of the landscape, but it feels like an austere museum instead of a fanciful home.
The music, like the sets, end up being a liability as well, since they all have a subversive undertone. The main theme starts “If I cannot bring you comfort, at least I bring you hope…” and that is an odd note to sync up with a bunch of children dancing in Christmas costumes as they receive brightly wrapped presents. All of the tunes seems to be constantly undercutting any theme of joy or wonder, instead hinting at dark undertones with veiled threats.
Likewise the acting. The characters, with the exception of Patrick, seem to constantly contradict themselves. It is easy to chalk Robin Williams’ character flaws up to his mercurial style, but the rest of the cast seems to have caught the bug as well. Robin Wright seems like a confidant and chum for Leslie, so it is jarring when she takes off her top and sleeps with him. Leland has fits of violence that seem overplayed, turning his character into a stereotype of the highly ordered man who is just ready to burst. Joan Cusack’s Alsatia is so odd she’s frightening, and she is treated like a circus oddity by the script, right up the point where she gets shot and explodes in a mess of springs, showing that she was an automaton the whole time. She comes off as a sad, lonely creature whose pain is just glossed over by her family because they know (but we don’t) that she is just a toy herself.
Papa Don’t Preach
The final straw for Toys is the misplaced appeal to nostalgia. The film has a definite critique of modern toys, video games in particular (which is hilarious, since the movie was made into an awful cash grab game for the Super Nintendo.) It manages to be oddly prescient in regards to virtual reality, drone warfare, and the nature of digital media, but squanders this insight by trying to lionize old junk. The message is that from the toys to the military, the old days were the good days…despite all the evidence being clearly to the contrary. The film even manages to contradict its own tacked on moralizing.
Caution, Choking Hazard
Toys is too scattered and hectic for its own good. All of the good ideas are drowned out by all of the silly, pointless, or bad ideas. The interesting characters are sidelined to make way for oddity for oddity’s sake. As beautiful as the music in the movie can be, it seems to be fighting like hell to get out of this film, or at least to mortally wound it. Students of cinematography or architecture will see many wonderful things in this movie, but will probably want to fast forward through the absurdly long two hour run time scanning for unique and interesting shot compositions. They are probably the only people I can recommend this film to.
Toys isn’t for children, since there is much that is frightening (and that one really misplaced sex scene.) Adults will grow tired of the moralizing, or else be distracted from the films message by all of the insanity. Are there still people, even back in 1992, who long for the days of tin soldiers, wind up alligators, or cut-out doll clothes? Who was this film for? It is a shame that such an assemblage of nice elements is mangled and spliced together to such poor effect. It’s like taking a prized painting and cutting it up to use for wrapping paper for a defective toy that is sure to disappoint whoever it is given to.