Barry Levinson directs Robin Williams, Joan Cusack and Michael Gambon in this satirical fantasy where a military man takes over the family business of making whimsical playthings.
When I first started this blog the intention was to write essay length history and op-ed pieces on projects exactly like this. Follies that struggled to find their audiences. The misguided productions stories, calamitous releases, their place in history – cinematic and personal. Trying to figure out the internal and external forces that nudge an ambitious film into being a cultural bête noire. Return to Oz. Alien3. Last Action Hero. Over the past six years, the reality is this really has become very much a diary of what I have watched each week. Yet I do seem to devote more words and consideration to the big budget stumbles and wilder swings Hollywood made in my youth.
Barry Levinson’s Toys was a dream project over a decade in the making. Its sensibilities reside in the late Seventies when Levinson was churning out spec screenplays with comedian and then wife Valerie Curtin. His background was in writing for comedy variety shows and getting Mel Brooks’ jokes and ideas hammered down into screenplay form. No studio was interested in Toys when the first, second or third draft was submitted. Levinson broke through as a director with a run of down to earth comedy dramas; Diner, Rain Man, Avalon. He had the critics favour, was an annual Oscar shoo-in and his style was grounded in warm, humanistic reality. Killer box office and prestige meant he could make pretty much any project he wanted by 1990. So he blew the dust off one of his and Curtin’s old unproduced screenplays…
Considered in the wake of Batman and Dick Tracy maybe Toys wasn’t that strange a bet. The Fox executive who greenlit a lavish $50 million dollar budget and every single inch of their studio space to Levinson’s vision was at least playing within the current marketplace. Visualist directors who took their audiences into hyper artificial worlds seemed like THE trend after the emergence of Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Neil Jordan, Sam Raimi and even The Coen Brothers. The pre-Jurassic Park Nineties are littered with rubbery, cartoonish mish mashes that abandon all claims to verisimilitude. Francis Ford Coppola gave us his ornate and unhinged Dracula. The gothic slapstick of The Addams Family had exceeded all financial expectations. Even Spielberg gave up, gave in and made his poorest blockbuster: the papier-mâché Hook. Yet Levinson had never really made any overtures to be an iconic world builder until now.
Toys even had a bankable star. Robin Williams, the motor mouthed comedian who made the leap from stand-up to sitcom to A-List. He had won plaudits collaborating with Levinson on Good Morning Vietnam. He somehow charmed the world into making a period film about a school pupil’s suicide into one of the Top 10 money earners of 1989. If audiences’ flocked to see Williams in Dead Poets Society, imagine the stampede for him in a René Magritte inspired pop art extravaganza! Williams as a Wonka-esque genius who has to protect the innocence of imagination and play. Sounds fucking marketable!
And the look of Toys is something to behold. Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s (The Last Emperor) Oscar nominated production design creates a factory floor of gargantuan Pez head deities and smooth Italian futurism. The guts of the factory have ducks crossing synthetic rolling hills instead of corridors, school nativity production cityscapes for communal recreation and closing in walls. As the factory changes purpose it warps ergonomically. The dream world is almost too ordered, coded, built to be abused and rewritten to a more authoritarian ideal. The outside world is deep blue skies and high green grass, occasionally we uncover lost elaborate architecture from a child’s imagination. Like toys abandoned in lustrous lawn of a never ending summer’s day.
Trevor Horn assembles a soundtrack to stir up the wonder. The corporate folk of Enya & Tori Amos sweetens us up, hoping to lull us into a childlike state of arrested development. Levinson said in interviews “We were right on the doorstep of turning this into a musical… We sort of kept a bit of the musical stylization without the musical.” I find the happy workers singing along to pumped-in anthems of conformity and subservience slightly sinister and fascistic myself. Like something from a Lang dystopia painted pastel or Leni Riefenstahl documentary babyfied. When war between the toys finally breaks out whispered warbling gives way to a Frankie Goes to Hollywood revamp, the battle charge of aggressive techno. There are a lot of competing voices here cheering on an ephemeral and misguided vision.
In this cacophony of ideas the humans get overwhelmed. Robin Williams is all but on standby for the first act. His character mourning, the focus on his uncle inheriting Zevo Toys sucks all our attention. Eventually they start to genteelly clash. Williams pranks and undermines the new boss. He shows off practical jokes and inventions; a smoking jacket, virtual reality where the headset is what we would now call 4DX, a fake vomit testing room. The latter sequence contains the unfortunate line “This clearly is the vomit of the white man!” Surprised that wasn’t regurgitated in every eventual negative review. Gambon makes an attention grabbing fist of the villain, where Williams idles. Supporting players like LL Cool J’s ever camouflaged head of security and Robin Wright’s spaced out romantic interest struggle in underwritten, miscast roles. I wonder if agents were fired afterwards?
Joan Cusack is the only performer who bests the ostentatiousness of it all. Her character, Williams’ even kookier sister, has the most effective quirks, lands laughs. The movie’s finest but most disposable sequence has the siblings recreate a full blown MTV music video in a corridor to bamboozle a security camera. Slight spoiler, she turns out to be a literal living doll rather than a dolls clothes designer who lives her work. Even though the most artificial character has the most heart and life, the story never stops to consider how she might feel about the toy armageddon that occurs in the final act. Nobody would predict at the one hour mark that Williams and Cusack would be winding up a warehouse of their father’s inventions to fight a war of attrition with the destructive new designs.
Instead the playthings we are supposed to marvel at and cherish are used as cannon fodder in a toy genocide that seems to be the antithesis of everything that has gone on before it. It makes for a sorta spectacular finale but didn’t sit well with me either as a child or an adult. The movie predicts drone warfare a fair few years before it became commonplace but this stems from the practicalities of marrying up toy manufacture with a lovey dovey, out-of-date anti-establishment vibe rather than any prescience. Using toys as guided weapons really is the only satirical option that satisfies the set-up and vague messaging around the film. Both sides, good and evil, succumb. What would Woody or Buzz think? Toys would actually make a neat double bill with Spielberg’s A.I.. The same uncaring need to manufacture and replace creations with emotions but not stakes is here as in there. It just is one of many concepts touched upon but not explored with any serious robustness.
Overlong with an underwhelming start and distasteful finale, Toys doesn’t really conform to any genre. There is an overload of formless concepts. The basement of the factory houses some kind of vicious sea snake… we never see it clearly but it threatens the leads continually in the final act like the mysterious monster in Lost. Were the SFX unfinished or did Levinson want to retain its mystique or was it just too gruesome for kids? Not that it mattered, a few out of place swears and moments of inappropriate horniness meant this was released with a PG-13 rating anyway. Kids didn’t just not go to see it, their parents were persuaded it wasn’t overly suitable.
Levinson recently stated at a revival film festival “I thought, if we do it in these primary colors and it all looks like it’s happy and fun, but it’s really a dark comedy underneath it, rather than presenting it as a dark comedy.” I don’t know? Toys really feels more like a film for adults who want to pretend they are pre-teens again. It has an immaturity that only the wise will understand. I remember renting it as a 12 year old watching it in my bedroom (no one else in the house was interested) and being bored. And I was a pretty open minded kid. There just wasn’t an obvious market for the finished product as handsome and eccentric as it often was.
Williams would probably be the only factor that might have saved it from a box office drubbing. The first trailer shows no footage of the film. It just has Mork in one of the lush fields riffing to camera about what Toys might be about. Alarm bells should have rang there. If the concept of the film is so unwieldy that the star can’t summarise it to his fanbase and the footage from the film is nowhere to be seen, you might not have a hit on your hands. The second trailer tried to up the more comedy orientated moments of Williams performance (there’s at least enough to fill a two minute montage) and some of that grandstanding production design. Maybe that more trad trailer came too late though. Disney’s Aladdin had been released a mere three weeks earlier and had sold itself on having Williams voice the genie of the lamp. Considered one of his finest entertainments, Aladdin has a slickness and confidence that is the polar opposite of Toys misdirected weirdness. Williams even had a stipulation in his contract with Disney that he would not be the focus of a marketing campaign for Aladdin as it was in competition with his favoured release Toys. When Disney ignored the agreement they had to buy the star a Picasso as an apology before he would work with them again. The damage was done for Toys only hope though… the masses had already got their Robin Williams fix that winter.
The critics were accurate and dismissive. Variety in a contemporary review said “Levinson, a director most at home with slice-of-life portraits relating to his Baltimore roots, tries his hand here at a darkly satiric fable and ends up doing an extremely poor impression of Terry Gilliam.” The New York Times found little to praise “very young children would seem to be the target audience, though they won’t have a clue as to what’s going on. Their adult companions will be driven to dreamless slumber.” Word of mouth or Oscar buzz wasn’t going to turn the tide. I’ve scoured the internet looking for the usual snide PR, production horror stories and studio interference but it seems very much like Toys was just stillborn rather than aborted. Fox seemingly did as much as they could with what they had paid for, never impinging on Levinson’s vision.
Toys failed to open at Number One on its release just before Christmas. It ultimately only made back half its budget, grossing only $23 million over its entire US run. It never has had a Blu-Ray release (a strong indicator that the home video market rejected it too in previous formats). In all honesty it wouldn’t surprise me if it eventually got a Criterion Release one day. And if that were to happen we would no doubt cover it on The Worst Movies We Own podcast soon after. Natalie has a nostalgic fondness for it that I certainly don’t but maybe being a few years younger than me she was exactly the right age. And being a few IQ points smarter, the perfect temperament for its esoteric charms? But maybe there’s a good reason it was always available in her childhood Blockbuster when she visited?
A clash of impressive adult world building and pig headed strangeness, Toys caught my attention and frustrated me almost equally on this rewatch. Hippy dippy values reshaped into mass market product made for a generation that never really existed. It reminds me most of those ever so middle class childrens’ event movies we get these days like A Wrinkle in Time or the more pretentious Pixars. Well made films which posh parents might really think their kids should love but don’t have any of the instant gratification or rebellious adventure that cheaper, more mercenary releases naturally have. A kids’ movie should never feel like a museum piece, certainly not on opening weekend.
Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk
We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/