Remember “Toys” starring Robin Williams? No? Well, it’s been 30 years since this forgotten masterpiece was released at the height of Williams’ fame. Around this time, Williams appeared in the critically acclaimed The Fisher King in 1991, Aladdin earlier in 1992 and would go on to appear in Mrs Doubtfire in 1993. Arguably, these few years feature some of his finest work. Williams, and it was certainly Williams’ finest work. box office rise, if not for his acting prowess. So, if Robin Williams was such a huge star in the early ’90s, why have so few people heard of Toys?
In the late 1980s, director Barry Levinson was on a winning streak: His films from the mid-1980s to early 1990s were critical successes, in some cases winning awards. He would have his biggest success with the 1991 biographical crime drama, Bugsy, based on real-life mobster Bugsy Siegel. Bugsy earned several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for star Warren Beatty.
Robin Williams was also on a hot streak, as it was his more serious roles that earned him praise in the late 80’s/early 90’s. He has appeared in Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, and The Fisher King, all of which have been well received. The idea of a second collaboration between Levinson and Williams would probably be music to a movie producer’s ear, and it’s certainly a guaranteed hit.
Of course, Robin Williams was on board as the film’s leader, Leslie Zivo, the childlike heiress to a toy-manufacturing empire whose world is turned upside down when Lieutenant General Leland Zivo, Leslie’s uncle, is chosen as the heir instead. In an effort to match Williams’ taste, Joan Cusack was cast as Alsatia Zivo, Leslie’s sister. The supporting cast saw Robin Wright take on the role of Gwen Tyler, Leslie’s love interest, and LL Cool J as Captain Patrick Zivo, Leslie’s cousin.
The games were incredibly over-produced. Taking over every sound stage at 20th Century Fox, the movie features some of the biggest and most complex sets ever. The games budget was $50 million, which isn’t huge by today’s standards, but was huge in the early 90s. While the production was overdone, the only thing Toys heard was the soundtrack. Scored by Hans Zimmer, it also featured clips from Enya, Tori Amos, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and it’s well worth a listen, even if you’ve never seen the movie.
Reverse marketing movie volume. The ad relied heavily on Robin Williams’ star power to entice moviegoers. The gameplay teaser trailer was definitely interesting and very good indeed. Williams is standing in a wheat field and improvising some skits about the movie. It’s certainly one of a kind, but it doesn’t really give the audience any idea what the movie is about. Although the trailer is largely forgotten, it was a huge problem at the time, and was even referenced in The Simpsons.
You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that this movie bombed, earning just over $23 million worldwide. It didn’t fare well with critics either, managing only a 29% on Rotten Tomatoes. So, what went wrong? How did this become a stumbling block for Barry Levinson? Well, games lack an identity.
The phrase “Laughter is a state of mind” is written at the top of the poster, and this refers to a comedy. Williams’ humorous trailer mixed with outlandish costumes, sets, and performances also suggest quirky comedy. But it is not. So what kind of movie is it? It is funny at times, but there is no comedy. It features satire, action, drama, and even science fiction, but it’s not one of those genres. It doesn’t look like it fits in a box, and while that sounds like a good thing, it really isn’t. The movie does not know what it wants to be. It can be classified as a myth, or perhaps a surreal fantasy. Either way, Toy wants to be a jack of all trades, but as expected, he ends up a master of none.
Aside from being surreal and bizarre, the games have no substance, no basis for what they ought to be, or what they mean to say. I can see why a genreless picture might be cool to some, since it’s a cinematic curiosity. It’s part of the reason I’m so fascinated by gaming. It’s not a good movie by any means, but it’s almost the pinnacle of studio cinema decadence and pure artistic vision. If nothing else, 30 years later, Toys is a very interesting movie to look at.
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