Toys, a movie directed by Barry Levinson and starring Robin Williams and Michael Gambon, is a strange concoction of brilliant ideas and lacklustre storytelling. Its engine roars on the fuel of its visual design, which sits somewhere between Surrealism and preschool crayon sets. It is a great film to look at. But once the characters start talking and dictating their plans for the future of the Zevo toy company, it feels like the engine overworks and sputters to a disappointing halt.
No, Toys is not a disappointing movie. Rather, it is a good movie with disappointing characters. Consider Alsatia (Joan Cusack), the eccentric sister of Robin Williams’ character. She is sweet and loveable, but as the plot develops it gradually degenerates her necessity. And then something happens to her at the end that is shocking, answers a lot of questions, but plays only for that and nothing else. It makes her even more unnecessary. Consider also the main antagonist, General Leland Zevo (Gambon). He enters the plot as the incumbent owner of the Zevo toy company, but his mentality is so soaked in the regimentation and honour of the military that it has no room for the creativity required for designing novelty children’s toys. So what does he do? He uses the company as a front for manufacturing war toys that are loaded with real artillery. That’s more his style, you see, and he adheres to it strictly. His character takes no detours and entertains no deviations.
This is a disappointment because Toys seems like the kind of movie that would welcome deviations and unorthodox characters. It opens with an odd Christmas play, and then cuts abruptly to the compound housing the play. It is a large complex made up of multi-coloured departments. Inside, primary colours and primary shapes are dominant. A secretary’s desk is decorated with geometric ornaments. And on the floor is etched the paradox of the endless staircase. The factory floor is a cross between Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and what Ikea might look like if it had large animatronic furniture dispensers. Its workers hum and dance to inaudible songs as they screw heads on and assemble wind-up trucks. At a glance, it is a fun place to work.
But its original owner, Kenneth Zevo (Donald O’Connor), has died, and his son Leslie (Williams) is too immature to hold the reins. This is where General Leland comes in and Leslie goes out. He spends much of the movie sitting on the sidelines, tinkering with toy ideas and tucking Alsatia into bed, instead of learning how to grow up and handle responsibility. This, I suppose, is an achievement best saved for the end of the movie. What we are given in the meantime is a slow meandering trek through the bowels of human greed and ignorance. Leland wants to take over Zevo, and the disgruntled employees huff and puff but fail to blow the tyrant down.
Leland has a son Patrick (LL Cool J), whose speciality is camouflage. He can hide himself in the folds of a sofa. Just think of the possibilities with this skill. What’s stopping him from concealing himself in purses, or wallets? He’d be a neat Halloween prankster. In Toys, however, he’s a soldier with daddy (mommy) issues. His ethnicity also raises a few questions. Family reunions at the Zevo household must be enchanting events indeed.
There are a few awesome set pieces in this film, all of which involve the movie’s design and not its people. The most awesome is a short scene in one of the factory’s chambers. Leslie and his group of scientists are discussing the latest vomit-style Playdoh toy when suddenly the walls extrude themselves in Tetris configurations and close in around them, eventually locking them down in a space one-tenth the original size of the room. Such is the ingenuity of Toys’ production design. But then all ingenuity is lost when the third act breaks out in total toy warfare. Bad robots go up against good robots, and explosions fill the corridors. The grand Manhattan stage that hosted the Christmas play becomes a horrid battleground. The filmmakers no doubt consider this to be the film’s highlight, but what is it for? Why destroy beautiful things?
Toys also weaves moral issues about Mankind’s obsession with war and the loss of innocence through its tapestry, but its characters get in the way of its debate. By the end, we have no clue what the movie’s stance is, because it has crowded itself with mindless action. Its only consolation is that all the mindless action takes place against breathtaking backdrops.
Best Moment | The white Tetris room scene.
Worst Moment | Leland shooting wildly in his office, trying to kill a fly. And then the fly lands on his foot. Uh huh. You know what happens next.