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The Military Industrial Toy Chest: Barry Levinson’s Toys at 25

on December 17, 2017, 1:30pm

The Sunday Matinee takes a look at a classic or beloved film each weekend. This week, Art Director Cap Blackard is joined by legendary film director Barry Levinson to examine one of the most tragically overlooked films of the 90s.

It was Christmas, 1992. Shopping malls were still beacons for holiday commerce, Bill Clinton had just been elected president, and Robin Williams’ film career was on fire (the good kind). Aladdin had just come out and was a massive hit, but he wasn’t promoting that picture. Instead, Williams was devoting his publicity efforts to an extremely unusual film he’d starred in called Toys. Williams knew The Mouse would have no trouble selling itself, whereas Toys – that was a toughie.

The film, written and directed by Barry Levinson, is a modern-day fable and best described as such: Once upon a time, there was a toy maker named Zevo who lived in a wondrous factory. He devoted his life to bringing whimsy to the world and keeping the joy and innocence of childhood alive in children of all ages. But when he died, he made a terrible mistake. Fearing that his son, Leslie (Williams), was too carefree to run a business, the toy maker gave his factory to his brother, an army general (Michael Gambon). War was the only game The General knew how to play, so he made war toys: miniaturized, remote-controlled weapons. To save Zevo Toys and maybe even the world, Leslie had to grow up and lead a revolt against his mad uncle before it was too late.

Toys has grown chillingly poignant since its release 25 years ago. In the deceptive wrapping of a boldly colored fantasy world, it’s a cautionary tale about drone warfare – two years before the first test flight of the Predator drone. On a more macro scale, it’s also about the infantile nature of the warmonger and the struggle for pacifists to take action. Though all that easily gets lost behind the film’s other remarkable features: its otherworldly production design (never seen in cinema before or since), an incredible soundtrack helmed by Hans Zimmer and Trevor Horn, and an eclectic cast of unusual characters alongside Williams and Gambon — Joan Cusack, Robin Wright, and LL Cool J. Even with all that, Toys was destined to be a hard sell, but in 1992 it was in good company with the likes of Robert Zemeckis’ fatalistic fantasy comedy Death Becomes Her and Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. The latter of which was a summer release but also depicted an equally fantastic world during Christmastime …  though at the opposite end of the color spectrum.

Levinson calls Toys “a black comedy in primary colors,” which would have been a killer tagline if the marketing department wasn’t asleep at the wheel. The lead trailer featured Williams out in a wheat field improvising into the camera – and nothing more — while the more traditional trailers were front-loaded with Christmas marketing but offered a kaleidoscope of surreal visuals: a house unfolding from a giant box, a duck descending on a bed in a room inside a room painted like the sky … The aesthetic read as high-brow kids’ stuff, but the rating was PG-13. Just what was this movie about, and who was the intended audience? Williams offered some choice descriptions in interviews: “David Lynch Babes in Toyland,” “Fellini meets Fisher Price,” and one from the film itself: “F.A.O. Schwarzkopf” — evoking the US Army general at the center of the Gulf War. An international tagline for the film smartly echoed that statement with “make believe, not war.” Meanwhile, the US tagline was the oblique “laughter is a state of mind.”

zevo toys factory1 The Military Industrial Toy Chest: Barry Levinsons Toys at 25

Toys tanked in theaters, due in no small part to the studio’s noncommittal marketing and the baffled and scathing reviews that followed. Most reviewers could agree they’d never seen anything like it, but the satire was lost on them. The New York Times drew the conclusion that “very young children would seem to be the target audience, though they won’t have a clue as to what’s going on. Their adult companions will be driven to dreamless slumber.” Certainly Toys isn’t a perfect film, but if anything it’s a vivid, waking dream. Plot points whiz by in incidental dialogue, giving precedence to the nearly musical surrealism of the world. The film’s notable stars and a sizable budget apparently obscured the obvious fact that Toys is an art film. A “pop” art film is perhaps more accurate, but like all good art it thrives on repeat viewings; and no matter how bombastic Williams and co’s performances are, the film’s intent was clearly never to be a gut-busting Hollywood comedy. If this film came from France or Japan the public narrative about Toys would be very different.

“All you really can do is do the work that you believe in,” says Levinson. “Sometimes you can be celebrated, and sometimes you can be trashed. That’s the nature of it all. That’s filmmaking.” Toys was seen as a big departure for him, a far cry from Good Morning, Vietnam, where he’d first worked with Williams, or his Academy Award-winner, Rain Man. But, in fact, Toys was to be his directorial debut. He and his then-wife Valerie Curtin had written it in either 1978 or 1981 (his book, Levinson on Levinson says the former, but in our recent interview he insisted the latter). Either way, it took over a decade to bring Toys to the screen, due in no small part to the scope of the vision. Levinson said in his book that at the time of his original pitch, “you couldn’t mention a movie that would conjure up the image of this film, so for the executives there was an absence of an idea of what it might be. That made it rather dangerous.”

robin williams michael gambon toys The Military Industrial Toy Chest: Barry Levinsons Toys at 25

Both at its release and even now, comparisons for Toys are few and far between, thanks in no small part to Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s (The Last Emperor) astounding production design. The geometry and optical illusions embedded into every set pull from the playbooks of modern art luminaries like French surrealist René Magritte and Italian futurist Fortunado Depero – fusing their styles into a world that immediately takes viewers somewhere else. Take the Zevo factory floor, outfitted with colossal animatronics, spitting out toy parts, or the indoor rolling hills with a mechanical duck crossing. “We’re existing in our own time and place,” says Levinson. “We were in an alternate reality. So, therefore, we could do and be as crazy as we wanted.”

Even the incidental cars are left of reality. Leslie drives the ultra-rare 1950 Muntz Jet, and even The General’s SUV is a Lamborghini LM002, the company’s exclusive military-grade vehicle. In both cases, the designs are strange and less than 400 cars were made. “We just tried to stay away from anything that would depict where we were in time and place, as best we could.”

Toys’ visuals are met in equal measure by the film’s music, and the two commune with each other throughout. Hans Zimmer and pop producer legend Trevor Horn collaborated on both the score and assembling a star-studded soundtrack. Some pieces were composed before production to inform scenes, such as Tori Amos’ uncharacteristically electronic “The Happy Worker” that plays in the Zevo factory to pastel-smocked, dancing employees. “We were right on the doorstep of turning this into a musical,” says Levinson. “We sort of kept a bit of the musical stylization without the musical.” There are also further soundtrack-exclusive contributions from Grace Jones, Thomas Dolby, Pat Metheny, and a remix of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” that’s absolutely amazing. But the crown jewel of the soundtrack is easily the film’s main theme: a Christmas song called “Closing of the Year”, performed by Wendy & Lisa with an uncredited Seal.

“Closing of the Year” is a goosebump-inducing departure from standard yuletide sentiments. It’s filled with a genuineness that embodies what the holidays purportedly mean: “if I cannot bring you comfort, then at least I bring you hope. For nothing is more precious than the time we have…” There’s a somberness there, a realism perhaps but emphasized with love and perseverance. It’s a message that we certainly need in 2017, now more than ever. But if you’re wary of another gloomy Christmas song, “Closing of the Year” still has you covered as it explodes into a veritable exaltation of wintertime beauty with mysterious Seal lyrics. The track has outlived the film and continues to appear on discerning holiday playlists and has even made the rounds being performed by opera singers and orchestras.

Toys isn’t a typical Christmas movie by any means. It’s more in the realm of Die Hard and the aforementioned Batman Returns than, say, Elf. The film opens and closes with the holiday, using it as a focal point for the magic and innocence of the toy factory in its prime: celebrating joy with “huggable fun for everyone.” The goodness at the heart of the idea of Western winter holidays is critical to ushering viewers into the state of mind needed to enter the world of Toys. Christmas is magical. I remember the excitement of being a kid and opening presents. I remember the thrill of a brightly colored toy. Boom – the world of the film makes sense – and now the subversion of that pure, strange realm at the hands of The General can take full effect. Now, when the room where the toy makers are manufacturing fake vomit starts closing in on them, it’s a combination of funny and disturbing as that carefree reality collapses.

In its earliest incarnation, the story was relatively the same, but with a greater inclusion of virtual reality as one of The General’s war toy innovations. At the time, the technology was barely a gleam in the tech world’s eye – Tron hadn’t even been made yet. VR was just hitting prevalence in ’90s pop culture when Toys came out (Lawnmower Man released earlier in the year), but for Levinson the gimmick of immersion into a headset had evolved into something much more sinister:

“As the ’80s went on, you began to see video games, and you’d say, ‘Okay, well, if that’s where they are, then where are they going to go in the future?’ When do video games begin to look like reality? How would you tell the difference? If you were blowing up cars in a video game, what would be the difference if you were blowing up a building somewhere in the world?”

And so The General’s plan evolved a step further. With his toy company, he’d miniaturize the military at a fraction of the cost. By taking advantage of kids’ hand-eye coordination, he’d bus in school kids, set them down in front of new Zevo video games, and have them running ops – never knowing it was real. All that’s left is to sell the idea to “the Washington boys” in a disturbing scene involving x-rays, surgical scissors, and a bunch of brass in a cow pasture.

Both Toys and Levinson’s 1997 film Wag the Dog (celebrating its 20th anniversary this month) are eerily poignant political commentaries today, but bordered on the absurd when they were released. All it took was a little foresight and carefully wielded satire. “It exists, so therefore it will be,” says Levinson.

“You’re not going to suddenly go, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t think we’ll do that.’ They will. I mean, look. I just saw a thing the other day that said they’re having toy tanks now. Little things that can drop in and wander around and do all this damage with whatever kind of firepower they’re bringing to it. All of those elements, a combination of artificial intelligence … present scenarios to where we’re going to go. There’s no question about it.”

What Levinson is talking about are the real-world evolutions of the Tommy Tanks from the film. Just as the Hurley Burley Helicopters begat UAVs, there’s an increased focus now in remote-operated tanks coming from both Russia and the US. But what about the lethal bouncing ball and chain gun baby – too crazy to exist? Maybe literally, but in its early days, Sphero, the company responsible for the Star Wars BB8 toys, was constantly pushing back offers from the military to buy into their RC tech. Fortunately for us, like Zevo, they refused the call for their toy tech to be used in military applications. However, they did parody the notion in an April Fools’ video.

barry levinson toys The Military Industrial Toy Chest: Barry Levinsons Toys at 25

There is one glaring mystery in The General’s plot, though: Just what is the Sea Swine? In the film, Leslie encounters a motion-sensitive, amphibious and autonomous, possibly part biological, weapon in a pit of water. The “Sea Swine” eventually leads to The General’s comeuppance, but though it plays a pivotal role, it remains mostly obscure. “That was part of his strategy of building for the future,” explains Levinson. “He would create weaponry that would look like, in this case, fish life. It doesn’t even look like a piece of military equipment. The disguise of it would be very effective, and this military prowess would be quite devastating … Who’s going to pay attention to some sea serpent?” We can only hope that that’s one prediction that goes too far, but at this rate – who knows?

When Toys does get compared to other films, it gets put alongside Dr. Strangelove and Terry Gilliam’s work. Amazing bedfellows, and yet the movie still languishes in relative obscurity and budget releases instead of the Criterion edition one might suspect. Perhaps that’s because adults at the time snubbed it. It wasn’t a kid’s movie, but in 1992 it was the young people who managed to see this film in theaters or on TV and home video that latched on to it. While the film doesn’t have enough of a definable group of fans to earn it bona fide cult status, there’s a generation of thirtysomethings who have a deep affinity for surreal landscapes and can quote LL Cool J’s lunchtime boarder disputes (“I want my string beans to be quarantined”). If it were released in 2017, Toys might be lauded as biting political commentary of the day and not a disposable flight of fancy. Now that the absurdity of our own reality has risen to meet Toys’ satire, it must certainly be time to reexamine this film. Or maybe it’s too late.

For even more behind-the-scenes details and a deeper dive into Toys, hear the full Barry Levinson interview at Nerdy Show:

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