"Toys" (citywide) will break your heart for all the wrong reasons. An earnest attempt to create an enduring fable, it ends up a monument to tedium, the kind of soggy marshmallow that could make a Scrooge out of anyone.
Some of the most talented and clearly well-meaning people in Hollywood, from director Barry Levinson to star Robin Williams, have worked very hard and poured their hearts (not to mention an estimated $40 million) into this story of a battle for a toy company's soul, only to come up empty, a victim of too much money chasing too little inspiration.
Levinson, who also co-wrote the script with Valerie Curtin, has been trying to get this project made for so long (more than a dozen years) that its essence seems to have escaped him. What should be guileless and gentle feels overly calculated, characters meant to be lovable come out lobotomized, and the whimsy is laid on so insistently the movie nearly chokes on it.
Like several recent films, Steven Spielberg's "Hook" being the most prominent, "Toys" is a top-heavy celebration of childishness as well as childhood, an overproduced plea for simple pleasures and homespun virtues. But the contradiction inherent in this inevitably kills spontaneity, and without that, all efforts at the requisite light touch are doomed as well.
Taking place, like any self-respecting fairy tale, in a mythical time and place very much like our own, "Toys" begins with the impending death of the good king. In this case he's Kenneth Zevo (Donald O'Connor), the kindly patriarch of Zevo Toys, a man so in love with the fanciful he connects his fading pacemaker to the spinning propeller atop his beanie.
Apparently believing that toys can't be fun if the people making them aren't having a fine time as well, Zevo has turned his factory into a fantasy amusement park with wildly tinted walls, goofy corridors, assembly lines topped with animal heads, and a staff so contented that it dances while it works.
The elder Zevo would like to leave all this to his son Leslie (Robin Williams), but saying the young man is not ready for responsibility is something of an understatement. Spending his days testing out novelty items like a smoking jacket that really smokes, Leslie considers it a compliment when he's told he takes nothing seriously. "I'm very silly," he admits, "but that's what I do for a living."
Leslie's opposite number is his uncle, Gen. Leland Zevo ("The Singing Detective's" Michael Gambon). A suspicious hard-charger who fears he's run out of enemies to obliterate and grumbles that he's not interested in the kind of sissy stuff the factory produces, the general appears to be the least likely person to take over Toyland.
But take over he does, and aided by his son Patrick, a counterespionage and camouflage whiz (played, in an amiable piece of colorblind casting, by rap star LL Cool J), he soon changes the face of Zevo Toys. Security is tightened, barbed wire put in, the atmosphere gets darker and war toys (and worse) appear on the corporate horizon.
All this very much upsets poor flaky Leslie, not to mention his equally dotty sister Alsatia (Joan Cusack), his father's top aide Owens Owens (Arthur Malet) and Gwen Tyler (Robin Wright), the young woman who runs the copying machine when she's not busy giggling with Leslie and telling him how remarkably silly he is. With the very future of toys as we know them at stake, their assignment, should they accept it, is to muster the gumption necessary to unseat the general and restore joy and innocence to the land.
Levinson and company have told this simple story with all the resources a big-time Hollywood extravaganza can command, including a most colorful and surreal production design the likes of which only Ferdinando Scarfiotti (an Oscar winner for "The Last Emperor") could dream up. Impressive as all this is, however, it is not what this particular movie wants or needs. The production design feels elaborate to the point of oppressiveness, overwhelming "Toys' " already slight story and making it seem even more insignificant than it otherwise would.
The Curtin-Levinson script is too precious by half, its studied artlessness more irritating than charming. Even its nominal childlike qualities prove something of a sham, as the film (rated PG-13 for some language and sensuality) insists on moments that are more adult than parents of youngsters may be happy with.
What makes "Toys" that much sadder a failure is that everyone involved must have sincerely felt they were doing the Lord's work, care and concern going hand in hand with an almost total miscalculation of mood. Even Robin Williams, so lively a voice in "Aladdin," is on beatific automatic pilot here, preferring to be warm and cuddly when a little of his energy (paradoxically on splendid display in the film's teaser trailer) is desperately called for. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas seems to have stripped the life from this film as well, leaving a pretty shell, expensive but hollow, in its place.
Robin Williams: Leslie Zevo
Michael Gambon: General Zevo
Joan Cusack: Alsatia Zevo
Robin Wright: Gwen
LL Cool J: Patrick
Donald O'Connor: Kenneth Zevo
Arthur Mallet: Owens Owens
A Baltimore Pictures production, released by 20th Century Fox Pictures. Director Barry Levinson. Producers Mark Johnson, Barry Levinson. Screenplay Valerie Curtin & Barry Levinson. Cinematographer Adam Greenberg. Editor Stu Linder. Costumes Albert Wolsky. Music Hans Zimmer/Trevor Horn. Production design Ferdinando Scarfiotti. Art director Edward Richardson. Set decorator Linda DeScenna. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
MPAA-rated PG-13 (some language and sensuality).