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.
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.
You Want The Clothes From This Movie
If you enjoyed the out-of-this-world costume design of The Fifth Element then you owe it to yourself to take a look at Toys. Literally everything that Joan Cusack wears is absolutely bonkers from her pink plastic hair to the giant baby bonnet that she wears when she goes to sleep inside of a glass swan. Her costumes should be placed in a museum so future fashionistas can salivate at just how over-the-top they are.
Aside from Cusack's costumes LL Cool J gets to play dress up in a series of camouflage outfits that work both as visual gags and a semiotic representation of the fact that his character is hiding who he truly is with a harsh military exterior. Even when the clothing isn't saying something explicit about the characters - like when Robin Wright wears a full Scottish inspired outfit to learn how to ride a bike - it's a visual treat.
Robin Williams' First Understated Role
Keep in mind that a Robin Williams version of understated is not the same as another actor's understated. Williams was still heavily in his phase of machine gun speed jokes and weird impressions, but compared to his work in Good Morning Vietnam or the following year's Mrs. Doubtfire Williams is acting in a relatively low gear. Williams plays Leslie Zevo, the man-child toy manufacturer, as if he's been given a steady supply of Xanax. It adds to the dreamy effect of the film but if you're not used to seeing Williams whisper at a coffin as laughter spills out from under the wooden lid then you're probably going to be taken aback. It's likely that Williams' odd turn as Zevo would ingrain a soft spoken yet zany sensibility in many young viewers who watched the film on repeat throughout their formative years.