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By Brad Slager | August 19, 2004

Every Dog Has Its Holiday

You had the sense back in ’92 that “Toys” hadn’t provoked visions of sugar plums in the minds of 20th Century Fox executives. Despite the above assets, and a tent-pole opening date one week before Christmas, there was not the traditional holiday frenzy behind the release. Notably it sported an absence of advance hype, little of the usual brainwashing ads during children’s programming, and no fast-food tie-ins of note. About the only attempt at significant marketing was a perfunctory video game that languished on store shelves. Such a half-hearted effort behind a holiday picture is telling and the suits at Fox appear to have been correct in stemming their losses as the movie opened in the #6 box office position and never looked up from there.

The factors behind this failure are blatant. The movie is in fact a sight to behold at times, but in spite of these visuals the movie never dares to be as ambitious as the production designers—it rarely even ventures into the realm of story. Primarily we are served with a spartan plot with a simplistic message that is delivered in a series of disjointed scenes made for the sole purpose of showcasing grandiose set pieces. The fact is that this is not a unique problem by Hollywood standards, but it is remarkable when you consider that this shallow-as-a-shotglass script comes from a usually dependable director. In the same manner, Robin Williams is often wasted in his role of Leslie, the son of the factory owner, who is at times manic, but mostly he’s just meek. You cannot ignore that Levinson gives us a plot that is simpler than many of the wind-up toys he displays, but the talented cast is also given little material to work on.

This is not a case of dumping unfairly on a director responsible for a rare clunker. After all, Spielberg as an example has “Hook” and “1941” smudging his resume. But in the case of “Toys,” we are talking about a film that was close to the heart of the director. In the promotional period before the premiere Levinson made no secret that this was not only his pet project but his dream project, going so far in one interview as saying it was the first movie he had wanted to make. This is good fortune for all of us because had this been his introduction to Hollywood features Barry would have been banished back to the land of television writing. Imagine for a moment that Spielberg’s beloved “Schindler’s List” had instead come out looking like something closer to “Springtime for Hitler”. I’ll allow that “Toys” is not that awful, but the failure is no less stark.

Everything involving “Toys” seems to point to a case of an artist getting too close to his subject. As writer, director, co-producer, and a help in editing means Levinson was on hand from start to finish and everyone acquiesced to his vision. He does however share writing duties with a one Valerie Curtin, and this is a revealing detail. Ms. Curtin once shared another credit with Levinson, as his spouse. The duo had teamed on writing a series of forgotten comedies in the early ‘80s with titles such as “Best Friends“ and “Unfaithfully Yours“ that mirrored their own entertainment romance. Curtin’s name here on the poster is a clear sign of how old this script had become in ’92, before an Oscar trophy meant Barry could finally leverage a studio to finance his dream. This prods the question: Was it endearing of him to share a credit with his ex-wife, or had he intended on having her name tarnished as part of a bitter divorce? Whichever applies, following this failure I sure hope Val got the keys to the condo.

The story continues in part three of MILK CARTON CINEMA: “TOYS”>>>

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