Redemption in Toyland

First off, the homage to Magritte so prominent in the ads for Barry Levinson's gaudy, grandly entertaining live-action cartoon Toys -- Robin Williams against a cloudy sky, wearing a red bowler hat with a window through which we see the same image repeating itself on a smaller and smaller scale as though to infinity -- isn't just a promotional gimmick; its mise en abime is a way of preparing us for the transparent visual artifice that runs through the entire film.

Nothing we see in Toys is quite what it first seems: background and foreground keep reversing themselves, windows open on views that are really painted backdrops, seemingly unoccupied furniture turns out to conceal camouflaged people, and what almost looks like the real midtown Manhattan turns out instead to be a scale model, but to what scale? It's hard to tell at first; only when a corps of ballerinas en pointe come down the model's avenues do we get an answer -- the scale is about 1:100, and so the phony Empire State Building is about twelve feet tall.

The ballerinas are part of the entertainment at a Christmas party for the employees of the Zevo Toy Company and their kids, but in the midst of the festivities the company's benevolent boss is stricken with a heart attack, raising questions about succession. Will corporate control go to the boss's brother Leland (Michael Gambon), a three-star general who's never been really happy since Vietnam (does that tell you who the villain of the piece will turn out to be?), or to Leland's nephew Leslie (Robin Williams), the shy, childlike head of the firm's novelty division?

Tough choice, that, for a Christmas movie; the surprise here is not where Levinson's film is headed but how adroitly it handles its wide-ranging, ultimately serious explorations of the whimsical. As Leslie puts it before the final showdown between his forces and those of the general, who's been using the firm's factory to make something more than just a new line of toys, "We're going to fight fire with marshmallows."

Think of it as surrealism in the service of a sweet-tempered anarchism -- Jean Vigo Americanized. For that matter, don't expect anything like realism in Toys' depiction of the workplace. Until the advent of the general, the Zevos -- Leslie and his dad and his sister Alsatia (Joan Cusack), who heads up the doll division -- run their factory as though the production line were merely an excuse for a lilting production number; their workers sing and dance their way through their shifts with nary a trace of regimentation in their behavior. Imagine a benign Metropolis and you've got the basic idea (a lot of the credit goes to Hans Zimmer and Trevor Horn, who've provided the high-steppin' high jinks of Toys with a suitably witty and atmospheric score).

Enter the General, and pow! We're talking electronic security checks, jackboots, black shirts with lightning-bolt Zs on the collars, the whole panoply of fascist accessories. Boy, you better start marching in cadence or get out of the way. The general is keen on ferreting out industrial espionage, and what he sets up in his corner of the family factory suggests a bunker mentality operating on an unlimited budget -- barbed wire and electronic surveillance devices everywhere.

The general's security chief is also family -- his son, in fact, played creditably by rapper L.L. Cool J, who handles his crucial role with ease, dignity, and understated humor. And smack in the middle of all the film's jokey musical and visual references comes the Magritte image itself, or something like it, inside a parody of a music video -- that is, assuming that it makes sense to distinguish between parody and "original" in the case of an art form as dependent on visual allusion as music video is. If you parody a parody, what do you get? The old mise en abime theme again, natch.

The special effects in this video and throughout the film are dead-on, zeroing in on their satiric targets, but -- and this might be the main thing in a film where fantasy and technology are as hand-in-glove as they are here -- the spirit behind the fantasy never gets crushed or deadened by all the piled-up miracles of soft- and hardware.

If anything, Levinson's basic design gets clearer the more surprises he delivers, and when he wants to move to another key -- one of pathos, for example -- he does so almost without your knowing how he got there. Sure it's manipulative, but the wires are a lot less noticeable than they were in Hook. Comparisons with last season's Spielberg fantasy are almost inevitable, given the presence in both of Robin Williams, our inimitable imitator and indispensable Everyman of film comedy, and for me at least the comparisons between these two films are all to Toys' credit.

In Hook the fantasy seemed obvious, leaden, and for no very good reason self-congratulatory. This time out Williams gets a proper setting for his talents. Not since Robert Altman's Popeye has anyone created a film style that could capitalize so effectively on the childlike side of Robin Williams, the kid behind the manic manner. And where Hook was all too true to the premise of its source -- its unearned upbeat ending concealing an unacknowledged, unresolved fear of growing up -- Williams has always been able to find what's much less readily accessible than the child in the grownup, and that's the grownup in the child. He, Cusack, and L.L. Cool J all manage to project an inner strength, ease, and warmth that make the absurd world of Zevo toys -- and by extension our own world -- seem worth the promise of redemption that the holiday season brings.

Directed by Barry Levinson; script by Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson; with Robin Williams, Michael Gambon, Joan Cusack, Robin Wright, and L.L. Cool J.



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