Back in the early days of the Reagan era (when this story was certainly conceived) it may have been timely to rail against the perceived monolithic military complex while numerous groups were hysterical that The Gipper was ready to bring us to Armageddon. This is not to suggest that they were right or wrong, but at the very least you had a built in audience of aggressive pacifists who could turn out to see your message. But over a decade later Reagan is put to pasture, the cold war has thawed, and the Russian Republic is splintered into more groups than an anal-retentive Madison Avenue demographic technician can evaluate. Beyond that, the Gulf War actually put more Americans on the side of technological superiority and thus Levinson’s moldy script lost much of its white dove resonance.
But even with a rapt audience of Pentagon resistance fighters this feature had to be looked at as not only pat but also poorly developed. Essentially what we get is the preachy cant of “War is bad”, which is the sort of protest you can get from a second-grader with access to USA Today. There are lesser possible lessons—like the loss of innocence, and possibly a warning against youths with too much time in front of Nintendo–but to explore these themes further would involve more effort than Levinson himself exerted. The over riding sermon here is not that intricate, and this becomes the undoing of this whole affair. While it is dressed up as a film for kids the tots become distanced by the geo-political overtones, yet the adults in attendance become bored with the sophomoric opining and lose interest in the childish antics. About the only ones who would be drawn to this might be any adolescents who are reared at a commune with a nascent bent towards activism.
The saddest portion is that the first-rate efforts of production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti and his team are completely wasted as a result. He too is an Oscar winner (for “The Last Emperor”) and he casts the centerpiece toy factory amidst a dreamlike landscape of fertile hills, with influences of Dada and Dali. The edifice is one half constructed to resemble the signature product of Zevo Toys, a cartoonish smiling elephant, with the pachyderm wing rising above the rest of the facility and the trunk serving as the smokestack. It rises up from the sprawling green horizon like a verdant version of Santa’s toy plant, and inside the factory floor has large animatronic dispensers and towering windows.
Other scenes have designs that are at once highly impressive and largely pointless–comprising of detailed form with limited function. One visual treat focuses on a beautifully furnished room that is empty as we hear conversation, and after some time a hand enters into the frame revealing that it is actually a detailed miniature. The camera slowly pans back to show the characters then standing in an identically furnished life-size room. As cool as the effect looks, the miniature is apropos nothing being spoken, nor related at all to the story. Later is a scene where Leslie is putting his sister to bed in a 3-sided room meant to resemble a dollhouse and is situated in a much larger area with painted clouds adorning the walls. She is lying in a bed with one half of an enormous stylish bird hovering over head, and before he exits it lowers to cover her, its eyes illuminating as a night light. Again it serves no purpose to plot or provenance, and no indication is given why she is entombed inside a golden goose. Looked kinda cool though. The bulk of Levinson’s film concerns trying to connect scenes like these amid his wan peace message, and the pretty pictures cannot carry the weight.
Get the rest of the story in part four of MILK CARTON CINEMA: “TOYS”>>>
Posted on August 19, 2004 in Features by Brad Slager
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