Published on June 28th, 2015 | by Clint Davis
Summary: You can count the things that work in this film on two fingers - despite an extremely talented cast and crew. This scattershot picture couldn't hold the attention of children or adults. In terms of tone, it's one of the most confusing movies you'll ever see.
PG-13 | 121 min.
Director: Barry Levinson
Screenplay: Valerie Curtin, Barry Levinson
Starring: Robin Williams, Michael Gambon, Robin Wright
Distribution: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $43 million | U.S. Box Office: $23.2 million (#54 of 1992)
“Know thy audience.”
That might be the most imperative commandment in the entertainer’s bible — and one that the often brilliant Barry Levinson forgot when he made Toys.
By 1992, Levinson had become one of the most dependable and powerful writer/directors in American film. In the four years since 1988, he had made three pictures that earned a combined 22 Academy Award nominations and six wins, including a best picture trophy for Rain Man.
Twenty-two Oscar nominations in four years. Let that sink in.
Those films had also combined for over $237 million in U.S. box office receipts. When an artist achieves that kind of sustained success, he often gets a blank check to pursue the ever-pressing passion project that every creative person has had bouncing inside their brain since the start of their career.
Cue Toys. This was the film that Levinson had reportedly been dying to make for years. Sometimes unbridled passion can get in the way of coherent storytelling.
When I sat down to watch Toys, I popped the DVD into my PlayStation 3 and it immediately caused the device to malfunction and freeze. That should have been my warning of the trouble to come. My DVD player was trying to tell me, “Clint, please do us both a favor and pass on this one.”
I trudged on because I knew almost nothing about this film and had had a fascination with it since my childhood, when the VHS cover featuring a blond Robin Williams scared the hell out of me when I passed by it on the shelf at Prime Time Video.
For the first five minutes of Toys, I was enthralled. The opening sequence is one of the most beautifully directed passages I can recall. A Christmas ballet unfolds against the backdrop of a large set of miniature buildings, as a group of children looks on with smiles on their faces. The camera movements, editing and titles are perfectly timed with the film’s theme song “The Closing of the Year,” composed by heavyweights Hans Zimmer and Trevor Horn.
This sequence would go on to be the single best part of the movie. With nothing even close to matching the sweetness and care with which it was crafted. Five minutes in and already the best was behind us.
From here, the tone of Toys shifts drastically — wavering between a lighthearted tale of good vs. evil and a cynical, unpleasant Orwellian nightmare. The problem is, the film never figures out what it wants to be.
While the sugary sweet opening and the general premise — a jocund toy company employee (Robin Williams) attempts to save his late father’s whimsical business from his cold-hearted uncle’s new management style — would lead you to believe Toys was aimed at children, its thematic elements reveal it as a movie for adults.
The visuals in the film border on terrifying at times and it deals with some fairly serious subjects (conformity vs. free will, the military-industrial complex) but the characters are presented with the subtlety of a kids’ movie. Every player is more cartoonish than the last. For instance, the villainous Lt. General Leland Zevo, played by Michael Gambon of the Harry Potter films, is never seen out of his military uniform. In fact, none of the characters in Gen. Zevo’s faction are ever seen wearing anything but military garb that looks obviously similar to Nazi dress.
Everything about Toys is on the nose. Levinson and ex-wife/longtime writing partner Valerie Curtin make the line between good guy and bad guy so obvious it makes the film a frustrating watch for adults. Yet some of the dialogue and gags in the film are so mature it would be hard to justify watching the picture with a small child.
“Dad didn’t like war toys. He thought war was the domain of a small penis,” Williams’ character Leslie says to Gen. Zevo in one scene. In another scene, Zevo is heard calling a new toy’s design “baby shit.” Later in the film, one of Zevo’s heavies commits voyeurism by trying to watching a couple have sex after we see the woman get topless from behind. The flick was given a PG-13 rating from the MPAA, which makes sense after viewing but had to be confusing for parents who wanted to take their kids after seeing the movie’s innocent trailers.
Not only is the tone of Toys confusing as hell, it’s story is so unfocused you’ll have a hard time getting invested in any of the action — which is few and far between. Mostly we just have a lot of scenes featuring brightly-dressed characters, standing on elaborately designed sets, talking, but not really saying anything of substance. The lack of plot and meat in Toys really shocked me, as co-writers Levinson and Curtin previously penned the Oscar-nominated script for 1979’s …And Justice for All, which featured some of the most passionate dialogue in cinema history.
The whole time I watched Toys I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wanted desperately to be Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory for a 1990s audience. But there is a chasm of charm between that beloved classic and this knockoff. Toys has no great songs, no iconic characters, no bizarro psychedelia and perhaps most importantly, no kids. There are only a handful of nameless children seen in a pair of scenes in this film — instead it has a cast of adults who act like kids, which just feels pitiful. Also, the toy factory doesn’t exude fun like Wonka’s candy plant did.
The strongest asset this movie has is its cast of actors. We’ve got Oscar winners Williams and Jamie Foxx, in the latter’s first movie role. Gambon keeps a straight face in playing a three-star general who somehow doesn’t know the difference between a Beechcraft airplane and Beechnut baby food. Robin Wright shows up as a toy factory worker who becomes Williams’ love interest. LL Cool J is funny as a supporting secondary villain and Joan Cusack is just creepy as Williams’ woman-child sister.
Williams’ trademark energy does get unleashed in a few scenes but unfortunately his character is mostly obnoxious. He does get one pretty good line in during a faux-inspirational monologue late in the picture, when he says, “In the words of Barbie: ‘I have a dream house.’” In 1987, Levinson directed Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam, which produced one of the actor’s greatest roles and earned him his first Oscar nomination. It’s unfortunate none of the weight and fire that made that film so memorable could be recreated in this one.
Robin Wright, as the love interest, was the character I liked most in the film. By the time she shows up, working a cute smile and charming southern accent, you’re just thankful to finally meet a character that is relatable in any way.
I also did enjoy a running gag between Gambon and LL Cool J, who are introduced as father and son. One is an unassuming middle-aged British white guy, the other a chiseled young black guy from Bay Shore, New York, but no explanation as to their vastly differing looks is ever explained. The matter becomes even more puzzling when we find out the unseen matriarch of their family was also white. The dynamic between the two actors is legitimately funny and even touching at times.
The film’s climax is a bombastic action sequence that sees Gen. Zevo’s military-contracted toys stalking the protagonists through the corridors of the factory. It gets pretty intense a couple times and cinematographer Adam Greenberg makes good use of the miniature skyscrapers from the beginning of the film in one battle.
But overall, the ending battle sequence was crafted with zero skill, employing frenetic editing of close-ups that leaves the audience feeling disoriented. The year before Toys hit theaters, Greenberg acted as cinematographer on arguably the greatest action film of all time, Terminator 2: Judgement Day — so I don’t blame him, I blame Levinson for this scene’s shortcomings.
Toys wanted to be like a trip to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but ended up feeling more like a nightmarish weekend at Neverland Ranch. Save yourself two hours and just watch the trailer below, it’s much more heartwarming and enjoyable than the movie itself. But with all that said, at least Barry Levinson can take solace in knowing Toys wasn’t the absolute worst movie of 1992.