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Non-Review Review: Toys

What an odd film. It’s bright and colourful and simplistic and airs on Sky Family and full of Robin Williams flailing around in a way that is sure to impress small children. On the other hand, it features a lot of curse words, some rather disturbing violence and fairly explicit sexual references (including a father-son-nurse romantic triangle, escalated by a pity shag). It’s arguably too plain and niave to draw in an adult audience (with Barry Levinson of all people pioneering the MTV school of film-making for audiences with ADHD) and yet too adult and sophisticated for children.  Who is going to want to play with these toys?

Oh, ball(s)...

As far as I’m aware, this is a bit of a vanity project for Levinson – the film he’s always wanted to make. And it certainly looks it. Say what you will about the rest of the film (I’ll get to that in a second) it looks like nothing else. There’s a huge range of imagination on display here, from the foldout doll house where Leslie and his family live through to the endlessly green fields through to the toy factory itself, improbably (nay, impossibly small) to house all the wonders it contains within. There’s a sense of whimsy about the film which perhaps reflects what I myself imagined working a toy factory to be like as a young lad – meetings about fake vomit, concept designs for a literal smoking jacket. The film can’t be faulted on imagination.

However, once you get past this fantastic production – and it is a fantastic production, Levinson deserves commendation for bring it to life – you have very little. Very little indeed. The narrative is as simple as a fable: the kindly toy maker passes away and leaves his toy factory to his militaristic brother rather than his absent-minded son, and the uncle – unable to fathom childhood innocence – decides to make “war toys” for the little boys and girls (while planning with “the boys in Washington” to turn children into blind instruments of the military industrial complex). I think it’s safe to assumke that Levinson would not be a fan of Grand Theft Auto.

Levinsons fantasy is at once a magical fairytale and at the same time a twisted reflection of reality. Robin Williams probably ad libs a line about Michael Jackson, but General Zemo is identified as a veteran of Vietnam. Vietnam hangs heavy over the military as it attempts to control our youth and indoctrinate them, turning them into mindless killing machines. The problem is that such an assertion requires at least some engagement. Levinson needs to tie it back to reality, to give us a moral that doesn’t seem like a cracked conspiracy theory. Children were playing with toy soldiers long before General Zemo took over, so is it just videogames that represent a threat to our way of life (Levinson implies it to be the greatest threat, but there are sinister military toys of all sorts present)? Levinson seems to want to eulogise the loss of innocence that our youth have experienced, but I’m not sure the innocence he longs for ever actually existed in a more concrete fashion than the elaborate fantasy world he creates. We’ve always played ‘war’ – we’ve just used means other than video games to do it.

The movie is – as the above might inherently suggest – completely political. But it is never subtle. The goons of the new management wander around like stormtroopers, interrogating people about misuse of company facilities. LL Cool J does the best he can in the role of Patrick, but Levinson tries to have it both ways. In a stunningly designed sequence, General Zemo gradually enroaches on the factory, taking more and more space for his “restricted” projects. Rooms literally shrink and you get the idea that this could be happening without anyone realising (most notably when Leslie and some consultant vomit experts are force on to the table as the walls close in), but on the other hand Levinson has us believe that everyone notices the goon squad marching about. Either the threat is an incredibly subtle expansion on military authority that goes unnoticed until the last minute, or it’s a bunch of black-clad stormtropers marching through. It can’t be both (well, it could – but the movie isn’t complex enough to allow it).

For all it’s supposed simplicity, it’s quite an explicit film. There’s at least one sex scene (complete with voyeurs), a whole host of swearing and the surprisingly disturbing and graphic depiction of “a toy war”. Despite all the brightness and colour, I don’t think kids would be too comfortable with the film. And thereisn’t really too much happening beneath all the fluff to appeal to adults either. I am not even sure who the movie is aimed at, to be completely frank.

The performers do the best with what they can. Robin Williams is his over-the-top self here. It fits with the environment, but it’s really a take-it-or-leave-it acting style. If you’ve found him unbearable elsewhere, this movie probably isn’t going to change your mind. Michael Gambon seems on autopilot, though it’s hard to blame him. Joan Cusack continues a string of solid and fascinating supporting performances – making the most of underwritten characters – during the nineties. LL Cool J manages to hit the right notes as a decoy-obsessed military officer. And look out for a cameo from an up-and-coming Jamie Foxx as a security guard.

The music suits the surrounding: it’s loud and overbearing. You have no doubt of the emotion you’re supposed to be feeling at any given moment. Whether the director manages to make you feel it or not is a matter for debate.

There’s some stuff here to like, but it’s mostly lost amid all the noise and the one-dimensional nature of movie. It’s clearly intended as a fantasy in the style of a fairytale, but Levinson forgets that fairytales tapped primordial fears and morals at their core: beware strangers, wolves who clothe themselves in friendly dresses, and so on. The fear that Levinson has placed at the core of this movie isn’t sophisticated enough to be entirely accepted at face value. There are points to be made about the age of innocence and the toys we allow our children to play with, but I don’t think couching the modern fascination with violence (which is overstating the matter, I think) in post-Vietnam syndrome is fair. There’s arguably a great discussion to be had about the death of imagination in the world of mass-marketted merchandising – the movie tie-ins that I’m sure this movie itself inevitably spawned (at one point Williams even plugs Pepsi and there’s a part of the movie which seems intended to serve to launch a music single).

Maybe the problem is that I don’t really believe that too much lies underneath this fantastically polished exterior. It’s almost as soulless and lifeless as the toys it seems to ridicule.

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