HBO Max: Toys (1992) - Reviewed

Writer-producer-director Barry Levinson’s mammoth-sized decade-spanning dream project Toys took years to develop, produce and shoot only to face a poor opening weekend followed by an even poorer critical reception before disappearing off the near face of the Earth.  Despite a now famous and frequently parodied trailer of the film’s leading star Robin Williams riffing on the gargantuan studio set about what the film is, Toys was an expensive, daring and overtly artsy flop whose glorious sensory excesses were undermined by the fact that most viewers did not know what to make of this curious director-driven folly.  Thirty years later, that reception mostly remains unchanged but thanks to a new restoration airing exclusively on the streaming platform HBO Max, Toys now has a chance to be seen and reassessed as a most unique once-in-a-lifetime film production never seen before or since.
An ornate, sumptuous fable taking place somewhere in a fantasy world of the director’s devising, Toys concerns a children’s toy factory named Zevo Toys which is in trouble after the company president dies, leaving the keys to managing the company to his older brother Leland (Michael Gambon), a general in the US military.  The late owner’s son Leslie Zevo (Robin Williams), a childlike carefree and whimsical apprentice at the toy factory, grows suspicious of his new manager who begins steering the company towards militarism.  Soon Leslie discovers Leland is manufacturing weaponized children’s army toys intended to be remote controlled by children unaware of their true purposes.  It’s up to Leslie and his comrades to overthrow their new mad company president before he destroys the factory and perhaps the world entire.

From top to bottom, Toys is truly otherworldly in form.  At once magical and surreal with truly epically magnificent production design by Italian artist Ferdinando Scarfiotti who spent a whole year designing and building the sets, the film comes at you like a freak event of artistic nature.  Grandiose in size yet mercurial in motives, Toys also sports brilliantly wacky costume design by Albert Wolsky, an arresting and moving score by Trevor Horn and Hans Zimmer and breathtaking cinematography by Adam Greenberg. Toys as a purely technical exercise is as ambitious as some of the greatest silent film epics driven by expressionism and spectacle.  You ask yourself how this came to be and tragically when it was first released in 1992, audiences were unclear on why they endured a construct as bafflingly drenched in futurist fantasy pop art comedy such as this.
Starring a delightfully looney Robin Williams who makes full use of his improvisational skills set to create an equally extraterrestrial clown as leading man of the world of Toys.  Michael Gambon as the film’s lunatic general keen on fulfilling his mad dreams of jingoistic grandeur with overtly purposeless warfare remains one of the great British actors who creates an equally cartoonish counterpart to Williams’ madcap slapstick hero.  Also turning over strong supporting roles are Jack Warden, Joan Cusack, Robin Wright, LL Cool J and even includes Jamie Foxx’s very first big screen appearance, rounding out what is essentially a star-studded cast set free in one of the largest studio built film sets ever constructed.  Special attention goes to Cusack for playing the hero Leslie’s sister Alsatia who emerges as one of the film’s quirkiest characters which is saying something in a picture loaded with them. 
Unfolding and resolving with the dovetailed innocence of a children’s pop-up book yet with a dark undercurrent running through the whole endeavor, Toys is a triumph of worldbuilding but whose central points about how children’s toys can contribute to negatively indoctrinating youths by normalizing violence tend to get lost on the viewer.  Mostly while your eyes are wowed by the sets, you aren’t always sure of what the film’s brainchild was really getting at.  Moreover, the film isn’t always that funny and tonally leaps from place to place not always gracefully.  While some scenes are extraordinary with sets that transform around the actors in real time, others play like jokes that land with a thud. 

Still, for all the good and bad, Toys remains a genuinely fascinating artifact of the early 1990s studio magic dream factory style of filmmaking.  Intended to be Barry Levinson’s directorial debut, the film sat dormant for a decade before a Best Picture and Best Picture win for Rain Man granted Levinson carte blanche ala John Boorman’s Zardoz after the success of Deliverance.  Though I’m unsure if I’m ready to declare Toys a masterpiece, certainly among the absolute strangest films I’ve ever seen, it does remain an extraordinary picture unlike anything seen before or since that is absolutely-worth seeing at least once.  There will never be a picture quite like it again yet for all the film’s flaws (and there are many), this is as close to the idea of movies opening up a box full of magic as modern cinema has come.

--Andrew Kotwicki