I was originally going to write about the seemingly endless, remarkably bad Highlander sequels. But life has a funny way of changing plans.
Robin Williams will be missed. Then again that doesn’t quite make sense does it? He is missed.
His was the second celebrity death that ever truly hit me. The other was Harold Ramis, about whom I’ll no doubt be writing at some point. The common link is that at least for me, these are the guys I grew up with. Aladdin, Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Popeye, Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam, Good Will Hunting, Man of the Year, What Dreams May Come, World’s Greatest Dad. Out of his incredible filmography I still have the softest spot for Hook, nothing against the rest.
Now to watch any of them is to be reminded of that jarring loss. He’s my generation’s crazy uncle. He was always there to make you laugh. And he always pulled it off.
When the news hit that he had died, everybody was talking about their favorite Robin Williams movie. And one movie I never really saw come up. In fact, it’s a movie that I’ve hardly heard anyone else talk about and the only reason I know about it is because long ago my parents picked up the VHS of it just because Robin’s face was proudly on the cover.
And that movie is Toys.
In 1992, Robin Williams was riding high. He’d just worked with Steven Spielberg on Hook (1991) and Terry Gilliam (1991) on The Fisher King, with Dead Poets Society (1989) not far behind. This is to neglect the healthy number of other films made in the years in between. And 1992 would arguably prove to be one of his career highlights for it was the year he made Aladdin.
Aladdin remains one of my favorite Disney animated films and that’s due in no small part to Williams’ turn as the Genie. He was determined to work on a Disney animated movie, wanting to become part of that great history of animation. The filmmakers wanted him from the start for the Genie and came up with a unique way to prove he was the one. Taking old standup tapes of his, they animated the Genie to the audio, making it seem like he was telling the jokes. They sent this experiment to Robin and he immediately signed up for scale pay, which means the bare minimum of $75,000. That’s remarkably generous given his stature and the workload, but he also had one proviso – he can’t be used in the marketing.
Well he could be mentioned, but the Genie couldn’t form more than 25% of an advertisement and his voice couldn’t be reused in toys or the like.
In the end, Disney broke the deal and leaned its entire ad campaign and toy lines on Robin. This led to years of bad blood between him and the company. He only returned once the CEO was replaced, and his first job back was voicing the Genie once again in Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996), the second sequel to the original.
But why was he so staunchly against marketing in the first place? Well the more honorable answer is that he wanted to make movies, not merchandise. And he’s said pretty much that verbatim. But he also wanted his other theatrical film of 1992 to have as much success as possible, which other movies with his name on them might defer.
His other movie was Toys.
Toys was director Barry Levinson’s pet project. Levinson got his start writing for various comedy shows like The Carol Burnett Show and some Mel Brooks films like High Anxiety (1977). His first directorial work was Diner (1982), which earned him enough to clout to head a series of great critical successes like Good Morning VIetnam (1987), with Robin Williams, and Rain Man (1988). But he never wanted Diner to be his debut. He wanted Toys.
It was an idea that he’d been working on for years but he couldn’t get the budget or control he needed to bring it to life. And it’s easy to see why considering the final project.
But after Bugsy (1991) earned a whopping 10 Oscar nominations and won two of them, he had enough clout to get his dream to the screen.
And what a dream it is.
Toys is, in short, about a toy company. Zevo Toys is run by the Zevo family (surprise-surprise), whose patriarch is dying. And instead of leaving the company to his impish son, Leslie (Robin Williams), he calls his militaristic brother, General Leland Zevo (Michael Gambon, who you’ll know as the second Dumbledore), to handle the business. The decision hinged on Leslie being too immature to actually take anything seriously. Also LL Cool J and Jamie Foxx make their motion picture debuts.
The movie gets stranger from there. Well actually, it was already weird. How? This is what the main room of the toy factory looks like:
The entire movie is bathed in one of the strangest styles you’ll ever see. It’s all based around the famous artist Rene Margritte’s work, which I can almost guarantee you’ve seen before. And let me tell you it’s something you won’t soon forget. Seemingly every shot is a painting in itself, each with its own eccentricities and weirdness.
But let me try to hash out the rest of the plot. Take note that I said “try.”
As soon as Leland takes over, he makes the motion to produce more violent toys. Leslie tells him that would tear the place apart considering they’ve only ever made family-friendly toys.
Leland relents, but sets up shop in a tiny corner of the factory, telling Leslie he’s trying to make some new toys but would be intimidated if anyone were to see him work. That satisfies Leslie, who is occupying his time with a love interest, Gwen (who, it turns out, was hired by his father to help him grow up), and his sister, Alsatia. This is intercut with various beautiful shots of the endless fields around Zevo Toys and the labyrinthine factory itself.
In reality, Leland is trying to sell remote-controlled deadly toys to the military. Or, as we now call them, drones.
Here’s where things get interesting. This movie essentially predicted the idea of military drones. This is especially confounding when you realize that Levinson wrote the first draft in 1982, a full 12 years before the first drone was even attempted.
But there will be more on that later.
The military doesn’t want the drones (ha) so Leland goes a little insane. His “corner of the factory” starts to grow, taking up just about the entire place. And Leslie isn’t allowed into that corner.
When he finally sneaks in, Leslie discovers that not only is Leland producing war toys, but children are being trained to pilot them with a violent video game. We see the kids piloting the pseudo-drones like actually soldiers do now. I’ll ignore the prediction of ultra-violent video games for now (Mortal Kombat would first hit arcades a few months before the film, meaning Levinson couldn’t have possibly known about it) and move on to the finale.
With his love Gwen and sister Alsatia, Leslie takes the remaining “good” toys to war against the “evil” ones. You’ll never see anything quite like this sequence and that’s a compliment. It’s exciting, colorful and surprisingly nail-biting. Even the scenes of toy-on-toy violence are surprisingly hard-hitting. There’s even an air battle with Leslie on a big toy plane trying to outmaneuver the enemy helicopter toys.
I don’t think it’s a surprise that he ultimately wins the war against Leland and is given control of Zevo Toys. The final scene shows the good guys gathered around the patriarch’s giant, elephant grave stone (seriously).
I’ve been very vague about most of the plot for this movie purely because I want you to see it for yourself. The Jaws sequels are hugely predictable. There aren’t many surprises. Pretty much everyone has seen Jurassic Park, The Terminator and Halloween. But I want Toys to be a pleasant surprise.
Everything about it is weird. The music ranges from Enya to Thomas Dolby of “She Blinded Me With Science” fame. Some plot points don’t make any conventional sense. To sneak past a security camera, Leslie fakes an entire MTV music video, complete with impossible in-camera effects, to distract the security guards. It’s weird, it’s wild and it’s fun. There’s a big reveal about Leslie’s sister that seems to come out of nowhere yet make some surreal sense. A whole scene revolves around determining what makes the best fake vomit.
It’s a movie that’s only strange if you watch it as an adult. When I was a kid I just remembered it as a wonderful movie with Robin Williams. Now I see the impeccable artistry that went into everything. The movie took up every set on the Fox lot. It took a whopping 10 months to shoot. And I realize just what a stupendously bizarre flick it is.
And the only thing holding it together is Robin Williams.
He plays the perfect child in a man’s body. His life is toys. Designing them. Testing them. Playing with them. He’s just a boy. And then his father dies.
Suddenly, in this absurdist universe that surrounds him, he’s directionless and faced with the encroaching darkness of reality. He has to grow up or lose everything.
And that hits a bit close to home.
Now I’m going to diverge from the recap/review/article you’re reading for a moment. To summarize, Toys is a fascinating movie. Watch it, if only for Robin and the otherworldly production design. You’ll never see another picture like it. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you. If you came here purely to read about the movie, by all means browse elsewhere. What follows is personal, somewhat unpleasant and there’s a sort of moral/thematic explanation of the movie. I haven’t really edited any of it because I wanted it to be as much of a stream of consciousness as possible. You’ve been warned.
Leslie’s plight, at least upon reviewing, struck me funny because it was so familiar. When I was 13, I lost my dad. I was just headed into puberty so I still carried the full brunt of childhood. After school I wanted nothing more than to play video games. In summer I’d go into the street and play baseball until someone’s car had a mysterious dent in the hood. And suddenly I had no dad.
At the time I was surprisingly resolute. I cried, but who wouldn’t? But I carried on. I was back at school the weekend after it happened. He wouldn’t have wanted me to fall to pieces and ruin my grades because of it. Only as time went on did I realize how that spun me off course. Or rather further along the course.
Without realizing it, I grew up. Fast. And without realizing it I grew up to be a whole lot like him. Which is something I’ve only really taken notice of lately.
But one thing that he’s instilled from the start, as did my mom, is a love of film. I mean look at what you’re reading. This whole site owes a lot to them. A fair amount of the movies I’ve seen were the ones they put in the VCR.
And in the years since he died, my fascination with movies has only grown. Again, as evidenced here.
Perhaps watching so many movies is why most of my dreams have friends and family, whom I’ll readily recognize as themselves, in the bodies of famous actors and actresses. My mom was Sandra Bullock a few times. My brother Kurt Russell.
And my dad was Robin Williams.
That’s part of the reason Robin’s death hit me as hard as it did. I saw a lot of my dad in him. Or maybe the other way around. And I’d been seeing him as my dad in my dreams for years. The two are linked, for one reason or another.
And now they’re both gone.
That might’ve been a bit too much of a punch for what’s supposed to be an uplifting article. But it comes with the territory.
When I found out Robin Williams was dead, I immediately felt off-axis. Lost. Confused. Angry. It almost renewed long-gone feelings of pain from my dad. It was the second celebrity death to hurt, cold as that may sound, and the sting didn’t go away.
But I think it’s all connected. As soon as my dad was gone, consciously or otherwise, I looked for the sort of father figures in movies. And Robin is everyone’s crazy uncle. Or crazy dad, as the case may be. He had the same sort of easy, quick and always unexpected humor. And he had a seemingly bottomless library of work to watch him work that magic in.
While he wasn’t the only one I noticed similarities in, he was one of the best comparisons. Even when my dad was around I was watching his movies. I grew up with him. Just like dad.
I felt like I had to grow up really fast again, but at this point I didn’t really know how or in what direction. I’m 20. I won’t pretend I’m done growing as a person but the awkward facial hair period is already behind me. I didn’t know what to do.
Watching Robin’s movies seemed as good an answer as any.
For a long time after my dad passed away I couldn’t hear his voice or see him in old vacation videos. It was too confusing. I knew he was gone and accepted it, but it’s an impossible to describe gut instinct that he’ll come home from work any second. Seeing him big as life that quickly after would’ve been too much.
Seeing Robin Williams bouncing across the screen had a similar effect. I was in disbelief. I couldn’t figure out what to do with myself.
I watched World’s Greatest Dad, a movie dealing with suicide and our culture’s tendency to turn everyone into a saint once they die. If that doesn’t hit close to reality I don’t know what does. It’s a powerful, gut-punch of a movie and I’d recommend it if you can take it. All of director Bobcat Goldthwait’s films are beautifully impacting like that.
But I needed something less shaking, less direct.
So I came to Toys.
I hadn’t watched it in a few years and the last time I did I wrote it off as a pretty failure. It’s gorgeous to look at but there’s not much actually going on.
My latest viewing changed my mind.
Leslie starts the movie as a boy in a man’s body. His life is toys, as I said and the title reminds. Then out of the blue his dad dies. And his world starts falling apart. Forces outside his control start closing in, threatening to drag him under unless he starts taking responsibility.
This plot didn’t feel so thin to me anymore. It felt familiar.
I was Leslie. Or so I thought.
In a similar spot, though with fewer wind-up ducks, I grew up. While I mean that in terms of emotions and maturity, I’ve realized in years since that even my wardrobe grew up. I often wear a tie for fun. Strange, I know. But then again my dad wore ties pretty much everyday.
And I thought that was the solution. Grow up. I won’t pretend I was completely mature. No teenager is even mostly mature and heading into my 20s I still have work to do.
But there were sometimes I wasn’t entirely happy. Things were too serious. I was too serious. Sometimes, anyways. Nobody’s completely serious except Christian Bale’s Batman. And I didn’t really let myself deal with my dad. I still abide by the notion that he wouldn’t have wanted me to fall apart so I didn’t. I soldiered on. But even though I’d talk about it with anyone who asked, I never really came to terms with it.
So what happens to Leslie? In the face of mounting dread he gathers his friends and family and overcomes it with what he knows best – toys. He becomes the de facto general of the “good” toys, leading them to victory over the dark forces ever circling. He wins. And in the end he earns the right to lead all of Zevo Toys.
I had it all wrong.
Faced with the same adversity, I tried to strong-arm my way through it. Take the pain. Be tough enough. I was, for the most part. But at the sake of sometimes being too high-strung and too somber when the situation didn’t call for it. And I thought that’s how I had to proceed.
Leslie takes everything he’s ever known, his obsession – toys – and learned how to use it to cope with the loss and overcome it.
And it’s what I had been trying to do without even knowing it. Film is my obsession. Always will be. I want to write them. I want to write about them. I want to direct them. I want to edit them. And everything in between.
I only started steadily working in that direction after my dad died. Without realizing it, I was doing what Leslie did. My attitude was just wrong.
So here I sit. I’ve had writer’s block for the past few months, only turning out some snippets of scripts. I couldn’t figure out what kind of movie to write or why I’d be writing it. Nothing was coming to me.
But now I have an idea.
Robin showed me that getting older doesn’t mean growing up.
Obviously I got older but I forced myself to “grow up.” Take things more seriously. And on and on.
But that’s not it at all. Yeah you have to be more responsible, but it’s all about taking your passion and embracing it.
You can always be a child at heart and to some extent you need to be if you want to make it through with a sense of humor. With age comes wisdom as someone old once said. And that’s true. You naturally learn more responsibilities and handle them. But growing up is a state of mind.
And maybe that’s the sort of lesson I should communicate in film. To hopefully give someone else that notion of warmth in an often cold world.
And Toys reminded me that it’s something I never had to do in the first place. The end of the movie is set in an endless field of unnaturally green grass with Leslie, his family and friends, gathered around that strange tombstone in the shape of the Zevo Toys mascot elephant.
They’re saying farewell, long after the funeral, because they learned how to honor the fallen Kenneth Zevo. They’re saying farewell with strength. They’re saying farewell with laughter. And maybe that’s not how everyone should go about it. But that’s how I have to.
You brought me peace and laughter. Something we could all use a lot more of.