The Misunderstood: Toys

The Misunderstood: Toys

Toys is perhaps the biggest flop in the history of the Christmas movie season. The charitable yuletide spirit has a way of making audiences tithe a substantial portion of their gift budgets to films that would normally fail, but Barry Levinson's ostensibly sure thing in 1992 couldn't squeeze more than a few pennies and a boatload of bad reviews out of audiences and critics. Toys will be the second Robin Williams movie to be featured in this column after the debut defense of Death to Smoochy. This shouldn't come as surprise as Williams has had a prominent role in a lot of bizarre or just plain bad films. In the case of Toys, though, he actually gave a great performance and the film's failure wasn't really his fault.

In fact, nobody who actually participated in the creation of Toys deserves the blame for its box office failure. Once again, that art-destroying gremlin known as bad marketing is the real culprit. I can understand how the first idea to hit the table at 20th Century Fox would have been to frame the movie as a lighthearted family picture, but someone who actually, ya know, watched the movie should have pointed out that it's actually a very weird, often dark film filled with anti-war commentary and a visual sensibility inspired by Magritte. Ah, but the innocuous trailer ignores all that. Looking at Robin Williams yuck it up and seeing Joan Cusack run around in giant, plastic doll clothes, you'd never think you were watching a preview for a movie that features a man graphically strangling another to death and dystopic visions of children training for combat.

Toys is about a man named Leslie Zevo whose father owned a popular toy company he left in control of his career military brother instead of handing it down to his son who is the acting CEO. Zevo Toys is a world unto itself, an immaculate, constantly shifting puzzle box of a factory where everyone is as weird as they are happy. When Lt. General Leland Zevo takes over, he uses the factory as the testing ground for his pet project, a series of automated and remote-controlled munitions with the potential to kill untold numbers of people. This was unsettling in 1992, but it has a special resonance today when the US military actually uses technology like guided missiles and drone bombers. Of course, none of that content actually made it into any of the promotional material.

Perhaps Toys was doomed from the start. It was a movie with that title set to debut a week before Christmas. Even if its tagline had been "When playtime is over, wartime begins" it still would have attracted a lot of children who weren't socially aware enough to know what the movie was really about. It's not a Willy Wonka style tour through a world composed entirely of childhood whimsy. It's an aggressively surreal slice of irony about a man who has found a way to integrate his childishness into very adult behaviors, though without escaping the inherently creepy aspects of that. Robin Williams plays Leslie Zevo with more restraint than you would expect, but that's probably because Williams realized he was in a serious movie, not some madcap adventure. His portrayal is, I think intentionally, disturbing. The entire film is shot to feel disconnected, dreamy and altogether off. In that way it's subversive.

Toys is not a perfect movie by a long shot. It suffers from the presence of non-actors like LL Cool J (tragically close to Jamie Foxx who debuted in this movie) and sometimes it ramps up the goofiness a bit too much. Still, taken in its proper context, Toys is a deeply affecting film with a striking, unique visual style.