"Toys" Is The Forgotten Robin Williams Movie That Gave A Generation Delightful Nightmares
If you grew up in the '90s it’s likely that you vaguely remember Toys as an outlier of Rob Williams’ work at the time. The tone is nowhere near as silly as the rest of his films at the time, it’s super long, and at times the pacing can feel glacial. But Toys deserves another look. It’s truly one of the most bizarre '90s movies, with almost constant references to Magritte and the early films of Walt Disney. As far as creepy kids movies go you can’t go wrong watching Robin Williams and Joan Cusack debate the merits of a mayonnaise and vitamin sandwich with LL Cool J.
The last decade of the 20th century was packed with a lot of weird '90s kid movies, but none of them attempted to reach the heights that the Robin Williams movie Toys sought. Like the best '90s movies, Toys tries to elevate what film can actually do, and while it doesn’t hit the mark every time it should be applauded for trying to fill a pseudo-children’s movie with modern art sensibilities. If you don’t remember how weird the movie Toys was then this should jog your memory.
This Was A Film Ostensibly For Children
On paper everything about Toys sounds like it would make a great children's movie. It's a film about people living in a toy factory starring Robin Williams. The visuals, plot, and goofy gags seem like they were meant to be directed at children but from the moment that a character dies in the middle of a meeting you realize that something is off with the movie. It's not bad, it's just not the goods that you thought you bought. Think about it like this: If Toys were a piece of chocolate it would contain a pistachio filling. While there's certainly an audience for that kind of thing, it's not for everyone. It feels like the film's director, Barry Levinson, didn't realize that he was making a film for a very specific group of people and instead in his mind this is a family friendly movie. His intent to make something for both children and their parents adds to the overwhelming confusion that pulses through this film.
Toys May Have The Greatest Cast Ever Assembled
If you were a child in 1992 there were few things that were greater than a movie starring Robin Williams. Toys was released after a string of child-friendly hits like Hook, Ferngully, and Aladdin, so it doesn't really matter who else is in the movie because Robin Williams was the guy at this point. It just so happens that he's surrounded by a collection of character actors that not only provide a buffer for some of Williams' more off the wall choices, but they fully commit to how weird this movie is. Michael Gambon plays Lt. General Leland Henry Zevo, the uncle of Williams' character, and this character starts out as your classic military guy who slowly sinks into insanity. Gambon's theater training allows him to roll with the wildest of Williams' punches and throw out some of his own insane character notes.
Rounding out the cast is a very young LL Cool J who's game for anything, Robin Wright seemingly doing an impression of a child in a grown woman's body, and Joan Cusack leans into her role as a giant robot toy masquerading as a woman.
There's An Opening Christmas Song That Is Bananas
This isn't the most interesting part of the film by a long shot but it's so bonkers that it has to be mentioned. The film opens with what has to be a five minute long Christmas song that involves ballerinas dancing through a miniature cityscape, children dressed as reindeer, the little drummer boy, children mimicking Christmas tree ornaments, and Santa flying into the room on a bi-plane to deliver presents before dancing with the children. The scene feels wholly unconnected to the rest of the film and it doesn't even offer an accurate setting for the film. Toys isn't a Christmas movie. It takes place over a series of months and just happens to have an opening credit song set to Christmas imagery.
While the scene is completely disconnected from the rest of the movie it works as a appetizer for the weirdness to come. It's almost like Barry Levinson, the film's director, was using this scene to say "If this is too weird then you need to leave the theater now."
The Colors In Toys Are Magnificent
Toys won't be remembered for its plot or for the perfectly crafted dialogue, but it should be revered for the way it looks. The colors used in the film make every onscreen interaction feel like a sumptuous pastel dream. The most notable colors that appear onscreen are the same color scheme used in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Using the exact shades of red, yellow, blue and white that were used by Disney provide a visual blanket to ease the audience into the abstract viewing experience of the film. The Snow White colors are so comforting that when a tonal change accompanied by the addition of black, red, and neon pink occurs 45 minutes into the film the audience is aware that something is definitely wrong.
The Visual Magic Of Toys
Something that should have been recognized about Toys in 1992 is the way the film uses movement. Something is always happening onscreen behind the main action that enriches the subtext of everything the audience is watching. People move like insects in a hive, machines whirr to life, and the Iowa corn sways in the breeze. Even if the idea of watching Robin Williams play a toy designer isn't compelling to you, the set design of this film is worth your attention. Apartments are built into giant white cubes, a house folds out of a pop up book, and the exteriors bring to mind rich oil paintings; each set piece would fit perfectly into a modern art museum. The most arresting visual in the film occurs as a part of a gag when Robin Williams walks across the floor of his toy shop as smoke trails from his body. Stripped of context this could just as easily be a painting by Magritte.
Toys Is A Darkly Funny Movie
The biggest downside of Toys is that it doesn't seem to know who its directed towards. With its soothing colors and lead star the film is obviously aimed at children, but the comedy rarely feels like it's for anyone under the age of 30. Despite being a little all over the place, the comedy rarely seems misleading. Within the first 10 minutes of the film the Zevo Toys patriarch dies in the middle of a meeting with his brother in a devilishly amusing way. Throughout the scene the character is wearing a propellor beanie that slows with his heart rate until he's face down on his desk. This is just one of the many scenes in the film that feel like they could have been cribbed from unused Monty Python sketches.
Not every joke or goofy set piece works, but that's a pitfall of making an incredibly silly and dark film where the actors throw everything at the wall. When the jokes don't work the film can feel like a tonal mess - specifically anything with Robin Williams and Robin Wright - but the brilliance of Toys shines through any time that Michael Gambon's General Zevo gives himself over to the ridiculousness of his character.