A review requested by Rebecca S, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Toys is one of the best examples I can think of why "kill your babies" is held to be important artistic advice. It is also one of the best examples of why I'm always privately happy when artists leave their babies alive, even if - especially if - they're malformed and grotesque. The 1992 film was a decade-gestating passion project for Barry Levinson, and that is fucking baffling, given every single thing about him as a filmmaker. Six of Levinson's first eight films as a director, starting with 1982's Diner, are some kind of nostalgia trip into the history of the 20th Century (Young Sherlock Holmes and Rain Man are the exceptions), and other than Young Sherlock Holmes, they're all fairly soft, warmly middlebrow character pieces. Toys is absolutely nothing of the sort: it's a production design-driven anti-military satire, splitting the difference between absurdist comedy and sticky-sweet children's movie It's a film-length tribute to RenΓ© Magritte, done as a Tim Burton film, by the director of The Natural and Avalon. Of course it doesn't work, but its failure makes it more exciting, to me, than anything else in Levinson's career - for, although he shifted a great deal in his interests after this film, Toys remains the single least characteristic thing he's ever made, with only 2012's found-footage horror film The Bay even coming close.

Toys, in its simple version, is about the childlike heir to a fanciful toy factory dedicated to old-fashioned wind-up toys, and his ex-military uncle, who wants to make modern war toys and video games. The complex version doesn't add very much to that, actually, but nonetheless, Toys is quite a busy movie. This is part of what it means to call Toys an out-of-control passion project: it's not so much that Levinson and his co-writer Valerie Curtin can't figure out a way to compress the material any further, as that they plainly didn't see a reason not to include every little fascinated thought that strayed across the forefront of their minds.

The result is that a clear-cut little fable, compact enough that you could fit it into a Dr. Seuss book, comes in at just a hair over two hours, most of which is spectacular bloat. Emphasis on "spectacular", for as much as Toys is crammed full of little subplots and heavyhanded, ultra-sincere themes, the main drive of it is just to spend as much time as possible hanging out in the hallways and rooms of the Zevo Toy Factory, enjoying Ferdinando Scarfiotti's production design and Edward Richardson's art direction and Linda DeScenna's set decoration, and the playful compositions Levinson and cinematographer Adam Greenberg set up to make the most possible use out of that space. Entire scenes seem to exist solely for the purpose of visual pleasure: for example a meeting to discuss novelty vomit in a white room with a black grid on the walls that starts to close in on the characters, one block at a time. Or a shot of a jeep in a hall designed to look like rolling hills, the vehicle bobbing up and down in and out of sight. Or a heist sequence that stops the movie ice cold for a four-minute Magritte-themed parody of a Talking Heads music video.

Pleasure is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but I've always found the first 80-odd minutes of Toys, when it's most thoroughly besotted with its own design, to be absolutely captivating. It makes no sense, of course, and the characters are generally more irritating than otherwise to be around, but it is a visual feast, playing something like a hybrid of Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Burton's Edward Scissorhands, crossed with the bold slashes of color of Futurism (Fortunato Depero is the only artist mentioned by name in the film's credits), all under the guiding eye of poppy surrealism après Magritte. The film is wide-eyed, born from a spirit of silly fun, and while the world it creates hardly "works" in the usual world-building sense - I have absolutely no fucking clue how the Zevo factory or the products they make are supposed to fit into the world at large, and I frankly think that the children of any era later than World War II would be appalled by the tin monstrosities that seem to be most of Zevo's stock in trade - it has an aesthetic unity throughout, relying on a remarkable amount of empty space in sold patches of color to guide our eyes to the eruptions of fussy design.

Toys is not, however, an abstract experimental film, and that's where it gets itself into trouble. In a busily-peopled world, there are really only five characters we need to keep track of, and all of them kind of suck. The protagonist, eventually (he barely shows up in the first quarter of the film, testament to its colossally imbalanced script), is Leslie Zevo, played by Robin Williams at the exact pinnacle of his popularity: the Williams film that preceded Toys to theaters (by a month) was Disney's Aladdin, and the film that followed was Mrs. Doubtfire, far and away his two biggest hits adjusted for inflation, or even unadjusted, if we ignore his small role in Night at the Museum. Toys was absolutely not that: despite a beloved teaser trailer that was as Williamsy as Williams could be, the $50 million production grossed less than half of that in the United States. And that's quite appropriate, given that Toys is a hell of a bad Robin Williams film. The actor, I suspect, found himself unable to be the zaniest thing on set, and the result is a curiously sedate, tentative performance. He doesn't go all-in on Leslie's exaggerated innocence, he doesn't play for maudlin sentiment, he's just pretty much there, occasionally doing one of those twisted-up voice things he did, but with no real commitment.

That leaves a black hole where the hero should be, and nobody rushes in to fill it. Michael Gambon, as the war hungry villain, General Leland Zevo, crucially misses that he's supposed to be funny, or perhaps Levinson misses it on his behalf. LL Cool J, as the general's soldier son Patrick, is a lot more willing to have goofy fun, but it's not tethered to anything. The two women in the lead cast are generally better: Robin Wright, as romantic interest Gwen, commits to the weirdness around her, but she's undone by the enormous uselessness of her character and the entire subplot containing her. It's a film that would likely have been better without any love story, and certainly better without an off-camera sex scene, and Wright exists for very little else. That leaves us with just Joan Cusack as Leslie's sister Alsatia, the one spark of life and righteousness in the whole film. Playing her character as a sci-fi clown, Cusack joyfully dives into making her character as erratic, eccentric, and at times freakishly off-putting as the script allows. It's astonishing and disappointing that, upon seeing her rubber-faced, jerky-limbed performance in the dailies, Levinson or somebody didn't immediately run back to tell the rest of the cast, "see, this. This is what this quirky bastard of a film should be about".

Then again, I don't entirely know that Levinson appreciated the film he was doing - after all, it is a flagrant outlier in his career, and doing surrealist absurdity didn't apparently come naturally. That's the real limitation of Toys, far more than its poor cast (it's a film whose pleasures are entirely apart from humans): the extraordinary mismanagement of tone. For the first hour and then some, the film is a brightly colored, slightly menacing fairy tale, with an infatuation for mechanical movement and mechanical-sounding music (the Hans Zimmer score, co-composed with Trevor Horn, is hardly one of his best, but it fits the movie; the Horn-written songs, sometimes with Zimmer, sometimes with Bruce Woolley, are so soullessly early-'90s as to become treasured kitsch), and a flighty sensibility that refuses to be like any sort of actual movie. Then it becomes quite nasty and dark and way too invested in the outcome of its narrative, as the satire goes suddenly overt and even more ham-handed.

It's also right about at this point that the script gets very bad. At one point, Leslie discovers Leland's secret video game testing room, and everything about it feels like it should trigger a headlong rush to the finale. Instead, we have something more than a third of the movie left, and the whole sequence is generally ignored thereafter except when it specifically needs to advance the plot. There comes a point, that is to say, where Toys stops being a weird, broken, wonderfully ambitious plunge into design, and just becomes a grind. Now, I'm still much more invested in the the ambition and weirdness than I am turned off by the dysfunctional script, but there's no gainsaying the general consensus that Toys is a failure. It is a failure after all, and whether it's a glorious, intoxicating failure or a dire, unwatchable failure is right down to personal taste.