30 Years Later, Barry Levinson’s Toys Is Still A Strange Movie


Remember Toys starring Robin Williams? No? Well, it’s been 30 years since this forgotten curio was released at the height of Williams’ fame. Around this time, Williams had appeared in the critically lauded 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 Williams’ finest work, and was certainly the height of his box office draw, if not his acting prowess. So, if Robin Williams was such a huge star in the early 90s, then why have so few people heard of Toys?

In the late 80s, director Barry Levinson was on a winning streak: his movies from the mid-80s to early 90s were critical successes, and in some cases award winning. He’d make his biggest splash with 1991’s biographical crime drama, Bugsy, based upon the real life gangster Bugsy Siegel. Bugsy received multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for star Warren Beatty.

Robin Williams too had been on a hot streak, as it was his more serious roles that won him praise in the late 80s/early 90s. He’d appear in Dead Poets Society, Awakenings and The Fisher King, which were all well received. The idea of a second collaboration between Levinson and Williams was likely music to a film producer’s ear, most certainly a guaranteed hit.

Of course, Robin Williams was on board as lead of the movie, Leslie Zevo, the childlike heir to a toy manufacturer’s empire whose world is flipped upside down when Lieutenant General Leland Zevo, Leslie’s uncle, is chosen as the heir instead. In an attempt to match Williams’ zaniness, Joan Cusack was cast as Alsatia Zevo, 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 Zevo, Leslie’s cousin.

Toys was an incredibly over ambitious production. The movie took over every single soundstage at 20th Century Fox, and the movie features some of the biggest, most intricate sets ever seen. Toys had a $50 million budget,which isn’t a huge amount by today’s standards, but was huge for the early 90s. While the production was overblown, one thing that Toys nailed was its soundtrack. Scored by Hans Zimmer, it also featured tracks by Enya, Tori Amos and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and is well worth a listen, even if you’ve never seen the movie.

The marketing reflected the scale of the movie. The advertising heavily relied on the star power of Robin Williams to entice cinemagoers. Toys’ teaser trailer was certainly interesting and actually quite good. Williams’ merely stands in a wheat field and improvises a few skits about the movie. It’s definitely unique, but it doesn’t give the audience any idea as to what the movie is actually about. While the trailer has largely been forgotten, it was a big deal at the time, and was even referenced on The Simpsons.

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that this movie bombed, earning only just over $23 million worldwide. It didn’t fare well with critics either, managing only 29% on Rotten Tomatoes. So, what went wrong? How did this become Barry Levinson’s stumbling block? Well, Toys lacks an identity.

‘Laughter is a state of mind’ is emblazoned at the very top of the poster, and this suggests a comedy. Williams’ humorous teaser trailer, mixed with the wacky costumes, sets and performances too suggest a quirky comedy. But it just isn’t. So what kind of movie is it? It’s funny at times, but no comedy. It features satire, action, drama and even science fiction, but isn’t one of these genres. It doesn’t seem to fit into a box, and while that sounds like a good thing, it really isn’t. The movie doesn’t know what it wants to be; it could be classed as a fable, or maybe surreal fantasy. Either way, Toy wants to be a jack of all trades, but as expected, ends up a master of none.

Aside from being surreal and quirky, Toys has no substance, no basis for what it’s meant to be, or meaning to say. I can see why a genreless picture might be fascinating to some,as it’s a cinematic curiosity. It’s part of the reason why I’m fascinated with Toys. It’s not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is almost the pinnacle of studio cinema decadence and pure artistic vision. If nothing else, 30 years on, Toys is a very interesting movie to look back on.

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