It was dark and we were returning from Albany. As the heavy Northeastern rains pummeled the little gold Chevy with the raging gusto of a typhoon we thought back on the evening’s occurrences. We had done something we had joked about doing but perhaps never fully planned on it actually happening. The wipers blinked for the windshield and the events of barely an hour ago finally took root in our stuffed brains.
We had watched Toys (1992) again.
Every so often a filmmaker has a passion project. Something that only he or she understands. Sometimes it’s a masterpiece. Like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Sometimes it’s not. Like John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974). Toys is not.
Perhaps director Barry Levinson gets crapped on too much. True he did Envy (2004) and Man of the Year (2006), but he also did stuff like Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Rain Man (1988), and Wag the Dog (1997). Not so small confession: I actually liked Sphere (1998) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). He’s got some solid films under his belt. So why shouldn’t Barry Levinson get to make his huge passion project that only he understands? Because it’s Toys. That’s why.
Most folks probably don’t even remember Toys. It did poorly when it originally came out and never really became popular. I suppose it has a strange cult following in the right circles. Toys is one of those films that haunted me in the video stores of my childhood. Such an appealingly surreal cover…and starring Robin Williams. The portrait of whimsy which was its VHS box was in curious contrast to its PG-13 rating. When I finally saw it years ago I was confused. In many ways it resembles a competent film. It has absolutely fantastic set designs and art direction—courtesy of Fernando Scarfiotti (The Last Emperor) and Linda DeScenna (Blade Runner). In this way it still resembles a sumptuous and imaginative children’s story. The story isn’t even all bad. It’s a simple tale of the clash between silly gentle toys and encroaching war toys and violent video games. It even has a pretty interesting cast that includes Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting), Michael Gambon (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover), Robin Wright (The Princess Bride), Joan Cusack (Toy Story 2), LL Cool J (Deep Blue Sea), Yeardley Smith (The Simpsons), Arthur Malet (Hook), Jack Warden (Being There), Jamie Foxx (In Living Color), and even Donald O’Connor (Singin’ in the Rain). Weird lineup? I said interesting cast.
I did appreciate bits of it a little more on this second and more recent viewing. I must admit that there are a few delightfully askew ideas sloshing around in this clunky and embarrassingly slow and unengaging movie, but ultimately things never seems to click. It’s like Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980); it’s bad, but it’s weird-bad and you can’t look away. Robin Williams is a somewhat undefined childlike toy inventor named Leslie Zevo. When Leslie’s kindly father (O’Connor) dies the toy factory is given to Papa Zevo’s warmongering nephew Lt. General Leland Zevo (Gambon) who has an unquenchable desire to please his own stern and dying military father (Warden). Obviously the General takes over and the factory ceases production of cuddly whimsical toys in favor of manipulative violent tools to groom young minds for military service and destruction.
There’s a desperation in the film. Despite some pretty and intriguing images (occasionally inspired by Rene Magritte it would seem) it feels empty, exhausting, and slow. There’s no heart. The dialogue is all hushed whispers, like Mr. Rogers on Valium. Toys is so quiet! A movie this big and zany looking deserves a little energy and life. Robin Williams is bizarrely understated and doesn’t have a strong character and he’s hard to relate to as Leslie Zevo, not to mention the fact that he’s been a lot funnier in other things. The music’s kinda bad too and awkwardly dates the project. Sorry, Hans Zimmer.
Then there’s the pacing which feels off and despite amazing sets and some great subtle visual gags involving the scenery, the film feels joyless and extremely talkie. This is probably why the film was not aimed at kids. While it has an infant sort of logic to it and the colors are tantalizing, the movie would put them to sleep. Then there’s the one real reason the kids shouldn’t see it: Robin Williams’ sex scene with Robin Wright. That’s right. There’s steamy premarital Robin on Robin action in this flick. OK, so you don’t see anything, but you hear them and you see her take her bra off and then it falls on a spying robot. Then you see Jamie Foxx becoming aroused in a spy van as he listens to Williams’ sex grunts. It’s sick.
Towards the end Williams gives a mash-up of about thirty inspirational speeches to an impromptu army of gentle toys just before they get slaughtered in battle. Can you not seize the day hard enough? I sure can’t. Who is he talking to? The audience? Himself? I wonder if the non-sentient toys can sense him just going through the motions. He seems about as disinterested in the project as Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Bill Murray had more energy in Ghostbusters 2 for godsakes.
The best things in Toys are the small cute touches like a Zevo car having to stop in the hallway for toy ducks to pass, but they are not enough. Toys is mind-numbingly slow. And I’m a Tarkovsky fan! The characters are inexcusably shallow and uninteresting (Gambon having the most interesting character but he still feels half-baked). The few jokes there are are forgettable, too understated, and spookily quiet. It’s not really a children’s movie and it’s not really an adult movie. I can’t even defend it as an art movie. What is Toys?
Toys is Barry Levinson’s Zardoz.
Forget what Toys is. What the blazes is a sea swine? There’s an unexplained amorphous cybernetic amphibious creature towards the end whose existence is accepted a little too readily by the characters. Is it a real animal the General has tampered with genetically? Is it a squishy robot that needs to live in murky water? If it resembles more of a snail-like graboid where do they get off calling it a “swine?”
I get what is trying to happen and what the story is trying to do and say and maybe the advent of drone warfare makes the film eerily more prescient, but I don’t think it all congeals into an appealing whole. It’s a sloppy, clunky shipwreck in a sea of nursery and bubble-bathtub softness. So why did I take the time to write about Toys if I hate it so much? Well, I guess I don’t hate it. I admire what was trying to happen and I really do love the art design and a few of the set gags. I guess I don’t know why I wrote about it. Something about Toys, although it is largely a forgettable experience, sticks in the back of my mind, so much that we had to watch it again years later just to see if it was real. Toys really is not a good movie and I don’t know how pleased Levinson was with the final product, but it’s nowhere near as weird-bad as Super Mario Bros. (1993) which might even be weirder in addition to being worse.
Ultimately it’s bad, but it’s uniqueness makes it sort of something special. At the end of the day maybe we can at least say Toys was weirder than Howard the Duck (1986), but maybe just as hard to watch. So go watch it. What do I care.