Wow, they sure don’t make them like they used to. A film like Toys may never be made again. Find out all about the latest instalment in the ‘The Forgotten’ series after the jump.
Barry Levinson (renowned director of such films as Diner, The Natural, Good Morning, Vietnam and Rain Man) would make one of the most reviled films of his career with Toys, released in the US on December 18, 1992 – just in time for Christmas and the school holidays. What a mistake that was. Obviously marketed as a family friendly film, it was very unpopular at the time. Pushing the boundaries of the ‘PG’ rating to unfathomable lengths this was a commercial and critical flop of epic proportions.
I haven’t seen that many films from Barry Levinson (who was unfairly Razzie nominated here), including most of the aforementioned ones, but I am yet to see a film I didn’t like on some level. Sleepers is great while his new film, The Humbling, features Al Pacino’s best performance in a long time. Apparently this is the first film that Levinson ever wanted to make, and the project had been in the pipeline for 12 years.
After watching this crazy film for the first time just this week, and sitting in a state of awe throughout, I am shocked that the film remains so widely hated today. I was sure the film’s incredible Academy Award-nominated production design from Italian designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, the outrageously detailed sets and costumes and oddball soundtrack put together by Hans Zimmer and Trevor Horn (which I loved), would have gained cult-ish appreciation.
The perfectly-judged performances from Robin Williams, Michael Gambon, Joan Cusack, Robin Wright and LL Cool J are so in-tune with the insane script from Levison and wife-at-the time Valerie Curtin, too. Maybe I am crazy, but I loved every minute of the experience of watching this film.
So, what is the film about? A lot of things. A lot of wild, ambitious, original ideas. Toys is set almost-entirely within and just around the enormous imaginary world of a toy manufacturing corporation. Surrounded by a seemingly limitless grain field, with a single road offering access to the factory, there is a surreal sense of isolation here. We see one of the employees travelling home from work, and get a brief scene in her apartment, but for the most part the world outside this field is insignificant. Taking place within is a battle for a toy kingdom that has had its culture oppressed and been transformed into a mega-corporation that exploits the innocent and the naïve for capitalist gain.
With toy mogul Kenneth Zavo (Donald O’Connor) nearing death, he knows he must entrust Zevo Toys over to someone else. He doesn’t believe that either his sensitive son Leslie (Williams) or kooky daughter Alsatia (Cusack) are up to the task, so he hands it over to his brother Leland (Gambon), a three star General in the army. Leslie has spent his entire life in the factory, but his immaturity and childlike demeanour has left him ill-equipped for handling the business side of things. While Leslie and his team continue working on whimsical new toy inventions, Leland is inspired by the idea to enter the war toy market – especially when he hears that corporate secrets are being leaked from the factory. He brings in his son Patrick (LL Cool J) to head up security, and uses a renovated portion of the factory to develop innovative toys that can be controlled remotely (by children, in arcade-like simulations). He intends on selling them to the military. After Leslie infiltrates Leland’s top-secret facility and learns of his sinister intentions, he enlists Alsatia and his girlfriend Gwen (Wright) to help him fight for the future of the company.
I guess the film’s unbalanced halves cop the brunt of the criticism. The introduction to the world of the factory, and the visual delights present within every single frame, is wonderfully odd. This place then become the setting of a war zone with peaceful toys programmed to fight back against the evil ones. This apocalyptic final showdown is super dark. Absolutely insane. This is a film that has a baby doll in a pram hurling bullets through the end of a milk bottle. Yes, perhaps the film unravels in the final act with the entire factory (including the incredible Manhattan model at the heart of it all) ending up destroyed, with Williams and Gambon dueling it out on top of a model airplane that does impossible things, and a late twist that makes no logical sense whatsoever. But I was so immersed by this time, that I cared little.
Did you know that Toys features the film début of Jamie Foxx? He is hilarious, as is a very young LL Cool J. Wright is as lovely as she has ever been, working so well with Williams, whose sensational improv skills hit a peak during a late, great motivational speech to his toy troops. Gambon is at his best as a villain too, I think, which I think is why his casting as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise always felt misjudged. He possesses an aggressiveness in his manner for speech that makes him naturally intimidating. The film may also be memorable for having inspired a video game, Toys: Let the Toy Wars Begin! and featuring this strange home video trailer, featuring Williams breaking the fourth wall.
The drone-children fighting for the military through game-like simulations – believing them to be just games – is perhaps inspired by Ender’s Game? But did you ever wonder where the idea for the e-screen gadget used in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol when Cruise and Pegg infiltrate the Kremlin comes from? This film.
There is so much going on here, and an enormous amount of thought has gone into the production design, which utilises influences from Italian Futurism and the art of Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte. During one of the many bizarre sequences Williams and Cusack perform in a music video sequence which is broadcast over the security system to distract Leland’s guards. The clip is back projected onto a screen, similar to the Ghost Protocol e-screen gadget, with some of the imagery used being the work of Magritte.
I feel like Toys exists in the same realm as films like The Fountain or Speed Racer. Widely unpopular films with style and ambition believed to be beyond the grasp of the filmmaker. For the record I like both of these films very much. While understandably contentious, films like this are few and far between and I think I am still coming down from the surreal high. If you have dismissed it over time, give it another go now.
By Andrew Buckle