Toys (1992)

Starring: Robin Williams, Michael Gambon, Joan Cusack, LL Cool J, Robin Wright, Jack Warden, Jamie Foxx, Debi Mazar, Blake Clark, and Sam Levinson
Grade: C-

Though the poster would suggest a signature look for Robin Williams much like Gene Wilder’s attire as Willy Wonka, he only wears this awesome costume in the “Yolanda and Steve” sequence. It’s disappointing because it really fits the vibe of Toys, but this Talking Heads-inspired scene in which its included is not!


Following some Christmas-themed stage play performed by and for children at Zevo Toys headquarters, Lt. General Leland Zevo (Gambon) shows up and is greeted by Kenneth Zevo’s (Donald O’Connor) assistant Owen Owens (Arthur Malet). Privately, Owens tells Leland that Kenneth’s death is imminent. In Kenneth’s office, Kenneth tells his brother Leland how his original plan was to give Zevo Toys to his son Leslie (Williams) and his daughter Alsatia (Cusack), but he doesn’t think Leslie is prepared for this kind of responsibility. He doesn’t even want to mention Alsatia. This is why he wanted to see Leland before he passes. Knowing Leland is their father’s (Warden) favorite because he followed his footsteps by going into the military, and Kenneth went the opposite way in creating a successful toy company, Kenneth doesn’t want the company to die with him. Because of this, he wants Leland to take over the presidency of Zevo Toys because he has no one else to turn to. Leland isn’t too keen on giving up the military, but Kenneth knows he hasn’t been happy since Vietnam. Leland’s best days are behind him, and Kenneth doesn’t want Leland’s leadership qualities to go to waste. He wants to give Leland full control, as long as Leslie and Alsatia stay on because his hope is for Leslie to succeed him when Leland is ready to retire. The conversation is interrupted by Kenneth having an episode in front of them. After a heart operation, he had his beanie propeller hat attached to his pacemaker as an early warning signal. Right now, the propeller has stopped, and he looks to be in trouble. Owens calls the secretary to get the paramedics, as Kenneth falls face first into his table.

In the ambulance, Owens talks to the now coherent Kenneth and begs him to reconsider his decision, but he believes Leland holds the key to Leslie finally growing up. They both agree that Leslie is a “flake”, but Kenneth admits he is one as well.

Following this, Kenneth dies. Leslie and Alsatia head to the funeral in their father’s car instead of the limousine Owens brought for them, but he understands, as it’s a colorful bumper car that’s more their style. Everyone is at the funeral as expected including Leland. There’s only one interruption, a “Barrel of Laughs” toy in Kenneth’s casket that goes off and the laughter is heard from everyone, prompting Leslie to turn it off and put it back in the casket. Once it’s lowered into the ground, the laughs are heard again, but Leslie tells Owens it’s alright because the batteries will run out in a few hours. Once things conclude, Leland tells Owens he wants a complete tour of the factory in the morning. During this tour, Leland walks around in disgust and stumbles into a meeting where Leslie and a few others are watching videos of the novelty toy tests and discussing them. Once they bring up the fake dog shit toy, Leland storms out of the room. Next, they check out Alsatia, who is working on the clip-on clothing for the dolls. She insists on trying the clothes on herself first, so she’s in her private office doing so when they walk in. She tries to show Leland the new doll designs, but he’s not too interested. Leslie interrupts while wearing his new “Smoking Jacket” novelty, which is a suit jacket that has smoke exude excessively from it. He smokes up the whole room until he finally finds the off switch, making a note to himself to make the button more accessible. Again, Leland is not amused. Leslie asks him if he’s made his decision to take over Zevo Toys, but Leland goes to see his father first.

Leland’s father is a four-star general but is in bad health. Even so, Leland goes to him for advice. Once they get past how he’s only a three-star general, which Leland blames on being stationed in England during his formative years and how he can’t get rid of his accent despite being American, he brings up Kenneth’s proposition. Initially, Leland’s father is already agitated because he knows how Kenneth runs a toy business, but Leland explains how the military isn’t what it used to be, and he feels disillusioned from how things are run now. His father mumbles worse and worse suggestions before evading the question of if Leland should take over Kenneth’s business entirely and lowering his bed to a laid down position. Before exiting the tent (that’s inside of a mansion), Leland asks if the nurse Debbie (Mazar) is available that night and she’s down. Later that night, Leland attends a board meeting where they discuss some larger plans and progression involving certain toys and video games. The bored Leland starts to doze off, though he is suddenly triggered with interest once someone mentions how someone may have leaked their plans about a certain toy. When he asks further, Owens explains that industrial espionage tends to happen and downplays it. Even so, Leland’s interest is piqued, and he asks to talk with Owens in private. Leland guides him into a supply closet and asks further questions about this supposed “espionage” problem while holding a lighter between them. Owens says the stealing of toy designs is not unusual because they have no way of protecting themselves. Hearing this, Leland knows the perfect person to fix this problem. It’s his son Captain Patrick Zevo (J).

The next day, Leland waits with Leslie and Alsatia and apologizes on Patrick’s behalf because he’s usually very punctual. As they wait, Leslie offers Leland some deviled eggs but moves them around every time he tries to grab one because of a magnet underneath. Suddenly, Patrick reveals himself to be in camouflage with the couch and was actually there the whole time as a way to show off his skills. The four of them have dinner, and Alsatia continues her weirdness by just eating two pieces of bread with vitamins in between the slices. Leslie brings up how Patrick visited them when they were younger, and Leland is surprised by this, though he’s reminded about the time he had their mother join him in Vietnam. While there, she passed away to appendicitis and he’s still shook up about it. Following this, Patrick breaks down his plans to solve the espionage problem. He’s bringing in a special forces unit to aid him. Next, he will interrogate every man and woman in the company. Then, he’ll set up a security system so no one can leave or enter without their knowledge. They’ll also have photo ID’s, which Alsatia is very excited about. Leland brings up how he’ll meet with some designers over a new “war” toy line, but Leslie is noticeably bothered by the idea because Zevo has never done this, and Kenneth was against it. Even so, he agrees to accompany Leland to the meeting. On the drive back, Patrick tells Leland it’s a good idea to bring Leslie into the new War Toy Department because it aligns with his advice of “Treat your friends like your enemies, and your enemies like your friends”. Out of nowhere, Patrick has the driver stop the car so he can get out and find his way home, as he’s always training.

Leslie reads Alsatia a bedtime story, but she interrupts to ask why their dad would leave the company to Leland instead of Leslie. Leslie isn’t surprised by this, but he did think Owens would have gotten it. Even so, they both know Leland isn’t a great fit, and he knows to keep his eyes open during this next phase, which calms Alsatia enough to get some sleep.

Soon after, Patrick’s plan is in full effect and Zevo Toys is starting to look like a military camp, as Patrick and his security keep a watchful eye on everyone. In his office, Leland chastises the new designers for only coming up with preliminary drawings after six weeks, but they tell him it’s only to show him what direction they are moving into. Leslie shows up to the meeting late wearing a “Body of Sound” suit jacket novelty that makes cartoon noises anytime a body part moves. As you would imagine, this is a bit problematic in a meeting like this. Eventually, Leland flips out on the team for the work they’ve been doing and excuses them. After continously annoying Leland with his jacket, Leslie leaves too. Once he exits the room, he turns off his jacket rather simply to show that he was messing with Leland on purpose. Patrick takes his security into the Duplicating Room to ask employee Gwen Tyler (Wright) some questions. She doesn’t take it seriously at first and it gets him angrier than he already was walking into the room. As he demands Gwen show him the process of duplication, which seems to be just the action of using a copying machine, Leslie shows up to ask what’s going on. Patrick just says it’s a security check and he leaves with his guards. Leslie goes to check on Gwen, who’s very new and is a bit shook up because of Patrick’s treatment. Thankfully, Leslie eases the tension with jokes, and they get to talking and introducing each other.

In the cafeteria, Alsatia gets the cook to agree to make her an applesauce sandwich for the next day, though today she’s fine with getting another mayonnaise sandwich. She goes and sits with Patrick for lunch, but he’s having trouble eating from his tray because he hates it when his food touches. Leslie sits with Gwen, and they continue to hit it off. From afar, Alsatia and Owens see the two and they smile, and they continue to talk in the cafeteria well after everyone has left. Later, Leland and Patrick travel to take a look at their competition.

Gwen enters the women’s bathroom and finds Alsatia in a corner singing to herself in preparation for her singing time with Leslie later in the day. For some reason, Gwen isn’t weirded out by this and joins Alsatia once she invites her over to try it with her. Meanwhile, Leland and Patrick go to an arcade and watch as the kids play games focused on gunning down people and machinery. Excited, Leland takes a stab at a military-based one, but he takes a different approach. You’re supposed to get points by shooting down opposing tanks and helicopters, but you lose a thousand points for shooting the United Nations’ trucks. Instead, he becomes fixated on blowing up the U.N. trucks specifically, while saying they always get mixed up in places they don’t belong, and he forgets about the actual targets of the game entirely. Back at the factory, Leslie has Alsatia test his new VR helmet and she’s amazed, saying it’s some of his best work. Next, Leland and Patrick are taking a look at some of the G.I. Joe toys and Leland talks about the disappointment he’s had with their designers compared to their peers, refusing Patrick’s defense of these types of companies having a few years head start. After work, Leslie drives his car and rides up next to Gwen who’s riding her bike home, though she’s still using training wheels. He offers to give her a ride and to teach her how to ride a bike, but she turns him down playfully until they both come to a complete stop. They finally admit they like each other, but Gwen says they shouldn’t see each other because Leslie never takes anything seriously. Leslie deflects for the most part but then says he’s going to have a confrontation with Leland because he doesn’t think they should be making war toys, though he’s not 100% sure he’ll go through with the confrontation. When he says he’ll do it if she allows him to take off her training wheels, Gwen agrees to think about it.

Sitting by a campfire, Leland talks about the possibility of remote-control planes carrying deadly weapons and how it’s similar to the toy tanks and planes they saw at the store. Now, he’s thinking how they could possibly make a toy-sized plane that has “deadly fighting capabilities”. Championing the kids at the arcade for having better hand-eye coordination than “any pilot you’ll ever see”, they could find their way into the market by reducing the cost of the planes they send out because of its size. This idea of an inexpensive military that is toy-sized could make Leland look like a military genius and he’s very aware of the fact. It will also change the entire direction of Zevo Toys into something that goes completely against the vision of what Kenneth created and Leslie is still trying to keep alive. Standing in the way is Leslie, Alsatia, and the people who know Leland needs to be stopped.

My Thoughts:

Before Robin Williams really embraced his skills as a dramatic actor, he was involved in some bizarre productions. Toys is a prime example. Coming from the mind of filmmaker Barry Levinson (fresh off of movies like Rain Man and Bugsy), this off-color fantasy comedy is one that is both fantastical in certain areas, where you’re amazed at the creativity involved, and also too strange for its own good. It’s a very odd experience but one worth having just because of the inventiveness of certain aspects.

From an artistic standpoint, you can’t forget it. Inspired by the surrealist imagery of artists like RenĂ© Magritte and the styles of Dadaism, Modernism, and Futurism, Ferdinando Scarfiotti designed the sets with serious thought and care, and with confidence, I can say the production and set design are second to none. Say what you want about the content of the screenplay, the characters, and the tone, but Toys succeeds on its set design alone. With beautiful imagery from the quiet hills of Idaho and Palouse (which needs to be used more on location shoots) to the magnificent buildings and sets created to make this look exactly what we would hope to imagine a toy factory to look like on the inside, the look of the movie is a fearless, vibrant, and downright unforgettable production design that seems to evoke the spirit of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, and some of the most famous paintings ever created to add to the surreal experience that is Toys. You’ll be amazed at the massive mechanisms consisting of human-looking heads and animals spitting out toy parts in the factory, the checkerboard floors mixed in with intense and unmatching primary colors on the walls and machinery, and the incredible innovation regarding sets like Alsatia’s bedroom, or the hallway designed to look like a series of steep hills in-between walls that are painted to look like clouds in a bright blue sky. Even the daring choice of making the dining room completely red worked. In most instances, it would look demonic but here, it was framed to look like a real-life dollhouse, and it was striking. When the walls of the testing room and the cafeteria move in because of Leland needing his extra space for his project, it makes the entire movie feel like a playground and we’re watching a child’s imagination on full display. Again, it’s quite the experience when looking at it from this perspective. Despite its shortcomings and middling decisions regarding the screenplay, Levinson had some serious vision of what he wanted to do with this movie, and he made it happen for better or worse.

Anyone who champions creativity should come to appreciate Levinson’s ingenuity and willingness to make a wild shot in the dark like Toys and failing spectacularly in a blaze of glory. I love the ambition. It was worth the viewing experience for these reasons alone. Where it fails seems to be everywhere else. Had they gone in the direction of a full-on surrealism nightmare with the story to compliment the look, it may have actually worked.

It doesn’t take a genius to see why this wasn’t a hit. Even though I knew what I was walking into as a viewer, the production gives off a strange, eerie vibe, where you feel as if you’re going to see something of nightmarish qualities, despite its relatively playful characters. Maybe I’m still bothered by Pee-wee’s Big Adventure all these years later, but I don’t think that’s the case. Toys just has the same authentic feel without trying. So, for those looking for this type of content, you’ll be disappointed because it never reaches that level of terror. Additionally, it looks too much like a kid’s movie. It has the heart of it and the main character is essentially a big kid running a big toy factory. How could you not think initially otherwise? Even so, despite so many goofy elements and stupid humor, the content is too dark, and the jokes are too mature for the age group it should be geared for. At one point, Leland tells his father that a fellow soldier tried to frag him in Vietnam, but his dad misheard him, smiles, and audibly mutters “big cock” implying that he thought Leland said “Fuck” instead of “Frag”. Stuff like this is why it’s definitely not for children. Now, even if the intention was for it to never be geared towards kids, it’s easy to be fooled by the presentation of 75% of it, which is why there were probably so many confused families and kids seeing it. What else are we supposed to think after such a badly executed opening sequence revolving around Santa and a bunch of kids doing this song-and-dance routine for spectators? How could we not think it’s for families after something like this? If anything, it only added to the confusion. If the movie was for adults, which is the only explanation, it still looks like it’s too kid-like in its style and characters, and it’s not intelligent enough for an older crowd, though the references and humor seem to fit it.

Toys fails because it’s stuck right in the middle.

Just like how Leslie explains to Leland that his idea for war toys in Zevo’s environment is a philosophical contradiction to the culture they have cultivated, the entire movie itself is a contradiction because it does too many things wrong for either side of the demographic coin. It tries to spread its wings too far to encompass more, but the material and certain plot developments are too weird to sustain the attention of a large audience. In reality, it would have succeeded had they geared the material more for the basement-dwellers that loved early Johnn Depp and whatever the fuck Tim Burton released that year. Because of Levinson failing on so many other elements of his genius idea, the film had the opposite effect and will now live on as an underrated art piece from the early 90s that seemed to be an attempt at a new-age Willy Wonka but with nowhere near the staying power. Part of it is the issue of star Robin Williams. When looking from the outside, I could see why Robin Williams was convinced to be a part of this production. The outrageousness surrounding it really suits his comedic stylings and persona. Unleashing the madness of someone like him in this world Levinson created sounds like a match made in heaven. Had he been given carte-blanche like Jim Carrey was given in the first Ace Ventura and told to run amok as the toy factory version of Willy Wonka, Toys may have succeeded as an extravagant and outlandish avant-garde type of comedy like nothing we have ever seen before. Unfortunately, Williams is strangely disappointing and too somber in his role. He acknowledges his immaturity as a character, but it’s not humorous. He just comes off as a sweet guy who needs a friend. Though he has a few solid gags and some jokes thrown in that he makes work like when he’s hanging upside down from a toy plane after crashing into Leland’s office and deadpanning the delivery of “Give up” and the subsequent “You thought I was a fool”, there’s still a genuine sadness present in Leslie’s heart that Williams never gets over.

As a result, it makes everything feel inconsistent. It’s not because of Leslie’s father’s death either because he seems over it relatively quickly and is already back to messing around the next day at headquarters. Leslie is just too contained and wants to be let out. It’s evident Williams is holding back to try and create too normal of a guy, but it doesn’t fit the story they’re telling. The idea of Toys wasn’t calling for this version of Robin Williams. The idea of Toys was calling for the crazy, no-holds-barred, borderline-cocaine fueled Williams. However, by the time this film got into production, Williams was already in the midst of transitioning as a dramatic actor and may not have been as willing to go back to his old persona while working on his craft, though this is speculation. Regardless, not getting this version of the famed comedian was the film’s biggest mistake because saying he would’ve thrived in the environment in front of him is the understatement of the century. For example, the scene in which Leslie makes a pre-game war speech to all his fellow wind-up toys like he’s readying soldiers for battle is very funny and well-written, but it doesn’t fit the moment, nor the character Williams has been playing the entire movie. With the threat of their lives actually on the line, it doesn’t make sense for Leslie to mess around in this moment of time. However, if Robin Williams was going full Robin for the entirety of the movie, this would totally make sense because of the cartoon character he is.

The romance between Leslie and Gwen was decent at times, but there were so many idiotic decisions thrown into it. You’re telling me Gwen rides a bike with training wheels home from work? What? You’re telling me Leslie beds her that quickly, and so soon after almost being killed by the unknown of the Sea Swine? Yeah, there’s no chance in hell. By the way, what the fuck is the Sea Swine? We don’t know if it’s a toy, an animal, or whatever else. It’s not seen well enough, and there’s no explanation given for it, despite the genuine terror it brings everyone by just existing. Then again, I don’t know if I want to know what it is.

Adding LL Cool J to the mix was cool for the ensemble but almost everything about his character was fucking stupid, with the lone exception of his ability to hide in plain sight, which got funnier as time went on. If he was a better actor, he could’ve played the entirety of this thing in a tongue-in-cheek, “Leslie Nielson” type of way and it could have actually worked, especially in the twist involving his girlfriend Debbi because the situation was calling for it badly. Michael Gambon’s performance was that of an over-the-top, live-action Disney villain, but his diabolical plan wasn’t half bad. Clearly, he’s insane and all (he shoots his own foot trying to kill a fly in one scene), but I don’t know why he flipped out on the meeting with the guys from Washington. The wheels were turning during that pitch. It seemed strange that he flipped out and started choking the one guy. What’s waiting a few more months compared to all the time wasted in creating his secret armada anyway? On a side note, the costume design was on par with the set design, with Leland’s rainbow camouflage attire he wears once his takeover of Zevo Toys is in full effect being a prime example.

No disrespect, but I thought Joan Cusack’s Alsatia was autistic the entire movie. Her performance was actually very good in that regard. However, the resulting plot twist explanation of her character was a horrible decision and only brought up more plot holes as a result, like why she would waste her time talking to the elephant mausoleum created for her dad. No one being shocked during the revelation was also insultingly stupid considering how insane the moment was. Then, there was the climax that fell off the rails. I was on board with the craziness surrounding the good guy team trying to infiltrate Zevo Toys to stop Leland, but everyone watching should find it hard to believe Leland managed to be thwarted that easily when he heard every step of their plan before they left the house, due to the toy stationed there having audio and video surveillance capabilities to allow him to hear everything in real time. How could someone with this impressive of a military background lose that badly even if he’s supposedly that crazy? Leland should know how slow these wind-up toys are and how they are all untested. At what point do you realize you’re losing, and you just decide to go in with a gun yourself and start shooting people left and right? This is the logical next step for someone like Leland. It wouldn’t make sense for him to react that badly in a war-time situation. Also, he’s faced one-on-two with Leslie and Patrick and backs down and runs? This guy is a fearless, three-star general, who minutes before was ready to kill his own son in the heat of the battle. Sure, he would have his hands full with Patrick in a scrap, but you’re telling me he’s not beating the dog shit out of Leslie? Based off of what he know of the character, it makes no sense for him to apologize and run. It’s not in the DNA the writer created for him. None of it adds up.

Lastly, his fate was a total cop-out and was not only undeserved, but having it go unexplained during the epilogue sequence was a slap in the face. They totally lose the audience in the final five to ten minutes, and the final scene was just as dumb. Though there are so many bright spots in regard to the style of the movie, Toys proves you can’t get by on artistic direction alone. This screenplay is in absolute shambles. For every cool scene where the walls move in on the designers like some big crossword puzzle coming to life and making the room smaller, you get inexplicable inclusions like one of the Washington guys having a pair of scissors in him when they scan his body, and no follow-up explanation or payoff is given for it.

Filming the toy battle sequence like it was a dark war movie was very funny, as was the shaky cam chase sequence where the good guy team is chased through the halls by the toys. In addition, the shot of the one toy dancing in the rubble of the aftermath was a very poetic way to end the battle sequence too.

A third of Toys contains some of the most innovative and inventive elements you may ever see in a mainstream movie, but there was a lot more help needed to make Barry Levinson’s screenplay into a complete production. As it stands, it’s too long, some of the characters are written laughably bad, it’s underwhelming in the wrong areas, it’s too sentimental when it needs to embrace its insanity, it’s not very funny, and it’s too weird for its intended audience to appreciate it.

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