MILK CARTON CINEMA: “TOYS”

To The Island of Misfit Films

Things open in a traditional fashion with an opulent Christmas pageant involving costumed children, a full chorus, and presents being parachuted down to the tykes from a Santa riding in a toy airplane from above. We also get subjected to the first of the numerous techno-New Age songs on the soundtrack, courtesy of Trevor Horn (of Buggles infamy) and featuring Thomas Dolby, Tori Amos, and Enya. The entire Christmas show feels like a tacked-on nod for disappointed studio heads. This is the only reference to the season in the entire movie (with the pageant repeated for the closing credits) and random shots of the exterior of the factory that are harshly edited show a balmy summer scene.

Arriving at the colorful Zevo Toys factory is an early model Hummvee transporting 3-star General Leland, brother to the ailing company President, Kenneth. On his deathbed Kenneth bequeaths the shop to Leland because, as he explains, his son Leslie (Williams) is too much of a flake to run the business, even as the CEO declares Leslie is exactly like himself. The general latches onto his chance to then manufacture war toys—something Zevo has never produced—and this brings anxiety upon Leslie and the rest of the employees. That sums up the bulk of the plot. Leslie is enthusiastic in his work but timid in his demeanor, a paradox that is heightened by Robin Williams playing the part. Williams at turns has to give Leslie energy, while other times his kinetic spirit is leashed, and rarely is a balance struck. What is left for the audience is the acting equivalent of “Gentlemen, start your engines!” while never getting to watch the race.

Leslie’s sister Alsatia (Joan Cusack) is a spacey dip who models life-size doll clothes and plastic hair while behaving like she left her wits at Woodstock. She and the other staff members are bemused by the General’s creeping authority and Leslie’s inaction. Leland introduces his son Patrick (L.L. Cool J) to the staff, and no one questions why the General with the British accent has a son from South Central. During their initial tour of the facility we hear the piped-in work song—“It’s The Perfect Job”– that the entire staff sings happily, despite sounding like a Casio-generated dirge that would lead to dementia after an 8 hour/40+ schedule. Patrick oversees the factory’s security detail and soon the happy company is run with the iron-fisted charm of a Laotian textile sweat shop, and the general’s expanding needs begins to crowd out the other aspects of the factory. All of this leads Leslie to valiantly proclaim, “He better be making something really cute or I’m going to be annoyed.”

Later, a love interest is uncovered for Leslie, a do-little blonde who works in a copy room, and I guess this gives the reserved shopkeeper enough of an impetus to actually do something. Leslie uncovers that the general was not only manufacturing war toys but also training children with video games that control war weapons in a bid to sell the technology to the military. This culminates in the general turning into a violent loon who seeks to destroy those in the factory who oppose his wants. During his Parker Brothers-purge the staff is cornered in an abandoned store room by the general’s creations, forced to battle against the war toys with the over stocked wind-up toys at their disposal.

Leslie faces the discarded collection and “addresses the troops” with a monologue that is amusingly evocative of Lincoln, Patton, and the famous “Henry V” battlefield speech. The scene allows for Williams to finally let fly with his comedic gifts, but this too is basically a flat result because in the end he is delivering an emphatic and passionate oration to an assortment of inanimate objects. The climax is a curiously disturbing battle sequence where the remotely guided military toys, fitted with various forms of ordinance, massacre the majority of the wind-ups, often with the metallic carnage shown in slow-motion detail that would make Sam Peckinpaugh proud. Things conclude when Leslie tries to pilot the decorative plane formerly used by Santa to crash into the command center, but the fact that it is propelled on a guy wire limits its maneuverability. An errant rocket from one of the toy helicopters wipes out the computer bank however, so the general is felled and Leslie is somehow positioned as the hero. (Also, Alsatia is sucker punched by another weapon, and her head flies off–the brutality muted by the revelation that she was a robot built by Leslie’s father. I have no idea why this detail was crucial, and since Leslie simply shrugs and states that she is fixable, it is easily bypassed.)

I grasp that Mr. Levinson was trying to state that war is bad, but the denouement here falls short of being uplifting. You could say that good triumphs evil, but really the good guys won because of one small, but fortunate, mistake–prior to that they were getting shit-hammered like a hippie protester at a WTO rally. So what was he striving for here? The adult message wedged into a children’s movie had lead to his discovering there was little audience to be found. The result feels like what might occur if the comics inside Bazooka Brand Bubble Gum were to be replaced with political cartoons: Few kids would get it, few adults would see it, and most would toss it aside to be forgotten.

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Brad Slager brings us a deep exploration into films that received a major studio release, with bankable star talent and a significant promotional campaign, and yet failed to receive the public’s attention. Brad trains his focus on those titles that have failed to register in the public conciousness–even for those who have seen them–and strives to find out what caused the problems, although he occasionally may digress into unrestrained flagellation. (For this we apologize.)

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Posted on August 19, 2004 in Features by
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