Everyone has his or her favorite holiday film that serves as a tradition. Some people go with the staples like em>It's a Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Story, while other branch out with more off-the-cuff fare like Die Hard and Scrooged.
For me it's Barry Levinson's 1992 flop Toys, starring Robin Williams.
The story of a man who inherits his father's toy business and then must defend it from his nefarious uncle who hopes to convert it into a weapon manufacturer, the film utterly tanked when it hit theaters back in the '90s. It made back only half its budget, holds a 23 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and was nominated for a Golden Raspberry. That's harsh because it is a really fantastic film that deserves to be lauded for the genius it clearly is. Today, I make that case.
5. The Story: Every great Christmas movie has to have a change in your main character that alters him from a state unsuitable for the holiday into one more appropriate. Ebeneezer Scrooge learns charity, Frank Cross realizes the value of human connections, and John McLane uses selfless heroism as a vehicle to win back his wife's heart and restore his family.
Williams as Leslie Zevo also goes through an important change. Though he starts out as a brilliant but feckless member of the Zevo Toys family, through the process of investigating his Uncle Leland's plots and fighting against those aims he embodies one of the most important Christmas lessons of all; that we have to protect the world, and childhood innocence as much as possible. That's not just saving one man's Christmas. It's saving many people's Christmases for years to come.
4. The Cast: One of the reasons a film like Scrooged endures is because you've got an amazing lead surrounded by perfect support. Toys Has that beat in spades. You've got Robin Williams exactly halfway between being the coke-addled manic comedian phase of his career and his more sedate work as a serious actor, which lends both depth and energy to his performance. Joan Cusack plays his sister Alsatia with all the incredible weirdness that she's capable of, and LL Cool J is their insecure but tactically brilliant military scout cousin who switches sides in the fight to preserve Zevo.
Michael Gambon comes on board as General Leland Zevo, who is bequeathed the factory on his brother's death bed as his brother feels Leslie is too immature to handle it. Gambon eats every inch of scenery as a bitter man eaten up with no wars to win glory in, who decides to secure his legacy through changing his brother's toys into implements of remote destruction. It seemed silly until you realize...
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3. It's Coming True: Leland Zevo gets an idea for war toys while watching kids play a tank video game. Impressed by their skills, he pitches the idea of miniature, remote-controlled tanks and helicopters able to be piloted remotely by soldiers. Kid soldiers with lightning reflexes who would be told it was just a game. Basically, it was Ender's Game without all that moralizing about giving a terrible person your money involved.
It's also exactly the world we live in now. Sure, the soldiers are aware that they are flying dangerous missions that kill people, or maybe get their own people killed if they fail, but you're still dealing with 20-year-olds being trained to operate sky death from miles away. And it's giving the PTSD at just about the same terrifying percentage it does to other airmen. Leland's evil plot is currently America's reality.
2. It's Freakin' Beautiful: Toys has two things going for it that cannot be argued with. One, it's an incredible visual film. The sets and shots were inspired by René Magritte's amazing surrealist art that lends a cartoonish aspect to the proceedings. Everything Tim Burton tries for these days, Levison did way better back in 1992. It's a wonderland of absurdity.
More than that it has a soundtrack that cannot be beat. Trevor Horn wrote what by all accounts should have become a standard carol with "The Closing of the Year", a song that still brings tears to my eyes whenever I hear it. Throw in Grace Jones absolutely killing her war widow ballad "Let Joy and Innocence Prevail", Tori Amos going semi-industrial with "Happy Workers", Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and the brilliance that is Thomas Dolby's "The Mirror Song" (Complete with in-movie music video... seriously, you've got to see that) and it's one of the best soundtracks of the '90s. If for no other reason Toys is a perfect example of just how well a movie can please the senses.
1. The Message: Allow me to wax philosophically for a moment...
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Leslie Zevo says, "We have a tradition of whimsy at Zevo Toys" when he's trying to dissuade his uncle from his war toys plan. It's a simple statement of his entire life's meaning, and an expression of the purity of something like Christmas.
When Leland ignores this and sends his miniature army to annihilate Leslie, Alsatia, and even his own son. How do they respond? They hole up in the old warehouse full of discontinued toys, and wind them up to march against an army they cannot possible defeat. Williams strides among them as they're being wounded, riffing on various inspirational speeches from history and naming them as friends and comrades in arms. What follows is a bloodbath of gears and stuffing as the relics of childish play are mowed down in order to buy time for Leslie to reach central control and shut it down.
That is the ultimate message of the film, and one I would hope that people would take with them. Against a faceless legion of death is sent a battalion of hugs and happiness. Where some would destroy, others would play despite the threat. If there's ever to be an end to fighting, someone has to stop even if it means he might not make it.
Toys says that constantly. Let joy and innocence prevail, even when death closes in.