An eccentric toymaker's last wish is that his brother takes over the running of the business. The brother is a military General, and is out of touch with toymaking, and out of touch with reality too. The business should really have been given to Leslie, who was much more like his toymaking father. When the General starts making weapons instead of toys, Leslie decides to take action. Written by
Perhaps a little ahead of its time, yet still a little behind too
Barry Levinson brings us a strange tale of a toy factory whose owner passes on and leaves in the hands of his two children (Williams and Cusack), very much children at heart, and his brother (Gambon), a US General with daddy issues. Seeing an opportunity, the General decides to hijack the traditional methods and mentality of the factory and build a new type of tech; war toys, designed to be economically lethal. Finding this out, it is up to our heroes, along with some friends like the General's camoflauge-happy son (LL Cool J) and a copy girl who falls in love with Williams' character, to stop him.
A case of 'wrong place, wrong time', Levinson odd little film is, though not without faults, surprisingly forward thinking about the desensitisation of youth and the dehumanisation of war. Today, that issue is much the rage (how often have we heard COD being called Propaganda/Army Porn or the use of drones), and in a post Columbine world, the idea of a youth perverted by the lack of distinguishing fantasy from reality is very potent, and one feels that 'Toys' would've been better served coming out now.
What's more, this also qualifies as one of the oddest studio films ever; from the Rene Magritte-centric production design to the interesting mix of actors here, though they all fit their roles well. The late Williams is very much the star of the show, and the child-like, jokey nature of this character fits him like a glove. Cusack as his doll-like sister also does well, giving the role a very youthful, almost eternally naive, quality. Joining them is the always superb Gambon as the pompous and crusty General, and he's having quite the ball in the role, and even Cool J as his son isn't half bad either, and actually has some good comic timing, especially given how meticulous his character is about proper military procedures. We even have Yeardley Smith and Jamie Foxx in small background roles.
However, some tonal indecisions, such as going from the dark subject matter to Williams' ad libs and wacky sight gags like a literal smoking jacket or fake vomit recipes, and a laggy climax involving a rather drawn out toy war do deflate things. In fact, that sums up why I believe the film's rep is so uncertain among critics and audiences; who is the target audience of the film? Is it an anti- war/protect our youth's innocence message for adults, or a quirky, oddball adventure for kids? It's like Levinson wants a live-action Ghibli film, but that careful blend of childhood magic and adult themes is off, making for an uneven, though still oddly fascinating, viewing experience.
Honestly, 'Toys' is worth seeing once as a ambitious novelty. It's such an odd mix of ideas, stories and even practices that there is really no movie like it out there, and it's sort of interesting seeing where it'll go or what it'll do next. Sometimes, a unique misfire is better than mediocre success.
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