If you're surfing the web today, chances are you're looking for a list. 'Tis the season, after all--we do love our lists as the last few pages come off the calendar. Best Movies of the Year, Best Songs, Worst Political Blunders, Most Popular Toys, Most Fattening Holiday Treats...all grouped in nice round increments of 5, 10, 20, 25, 50 or even 100 (for the most ambitious bloggers only.) Websites love lists largely because each item on said list can be given its own page, massively inflating one's click-through rate. And they love all-time lists even more than lists-of-the-year, because you can write an all-timer any time of the year and just stick it in the drawer until you need it. Let's face it, none of this year's entries is going to muscle its way into the Top Ten Festivus Songs Ever or the Five Worst Movies About Boxing Day. But if you're looking for a list of Best Christmas Movies, in an attempt to come up with something the fam and friends haven't already seen a bajillion times (I'm looking at you, A Christmas Story) well then, allow me to suggest a flick that celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. A film directed by an Oscar winner, starring another, that is nonetheless more likely to be on a Worst list than a Best Of. An unjustly overlooked gem that has grown in relevance with every passing year. Just step over that frankfurter-eclair Dreamsicle down there, and all shall be revealed....
ATTENTION--spoilers in the next section! Skip five paragraphs down if you don't want important plot points revealed.
Ah, excellent jump for someone your age. Good form. Well, enough suspense--submitted for your approval, Barry Levinson's 1992 holiday oddity Toys, a strange little Christmas cracker that mixes underwear gags and MTV mockery with philosophical musings on pacifism, corporate responsibility, the morality of war, the security-surveillance state and our children's loss of innocence. Also, fart jokes.
The story takes place over a year in the life of the Zevo Toy Company, opening with a production number being performed at the annual employee Christmas party. But all is not well in toyland; the founder of the plant (Donald O'Connor) is on his deathbed, and unsure if he can entrust the running of the company to his son Leslie (Robin Williams), whose life growing up in a toybox has left him somewhat less than practical. Just before this corporate Claus passes (and trust me, every cinematic death scene should incorporate a propeller beanie) he decides instead to turn to his brother, who followed family tradition into the military rather than becoming a toymaker. Lt. General Leland Zevo (Michael Gambon) agrees to take over, but following the funeral announces to Leslie and the factory's manager Owen Owens (Arthur Malet) his intention to start making war toys, something the decidedly old-school company has never done.
Leslie, pried from his cocoon of immaturity by the threat to his family's traditions and reputation, becomes increasingly concerned as Leland takes over more and more of the factory's floor (and wall) space for his "classified" project. Determined to find out what's going on, Leslie enlists the aid of his even loopier sister Alsatia (Joan Cusack) as rumors of industrial espionage prompt the General to call in his son, black-ops specialist Captain Patrick Zevo (LL Cool J) to head up a decidedly paramilitary security force. During a surprise sweep of the xerox room, Leslie rescues Gwen (Robin Wright--before the Penn) from Patrick's grilling and crushes on her bigtime. After some seriously screwy wooing, she too is part of the Resistance.
And this joke-store Fantastic Four is formed just in time--the General reveals to Patrick that he plans to remake modern warfare by (Nostradamus Alert!) building a line of miniature unmanned fighter planes...drones, if you will. He's gearing up the factory not to make war toys, but to produce one million Predators for the government at $5000 a pop. The armed forces won't even have to supply their own drone operators--scores of school children are being trained in the factory's top-secret wing to remotely pilot the deadly little aircraft, unaware that their supposed video-game fun is inflicting real-world carnage. The tykes are being taught as well to deploy loaded-for-bear Tommy Tanks and fleets of RC copters with air-to-ground missiles (and scissors.) Not to mention the Sea Swine.
Patrick being a good soldier, he does not question the Playthings-To-Slaythings plan.
But the General's meeting with "the Washington boys" does not go smoothly--when his plan is questioned by the Pentagon brass, he winds up throttling one of the emissaries he's trying to convince. (Later his anger-management issues surface again when he shoots himself in the foot in a vain attempt to kill an annoying fly.) Patrick, already disillusioned by his dad's loss of control, breaks with him completely when he's told the General lied to him about his mother's death. Patrick learns this during a visit to his girlfriend's trailer--the girlfriend (Debi Mazar) who's also been boffing Leland.
With Patrick on board, the Fab Five storm the factory-fortress in search of evidence, armed with a keycard acquired by Leslie from the Gods of Plot Contrivance. They infiltrate behind a hallway-wide screen, on which a video projector shows a mock music video by painfully typical new-wave band Yolanda and Steve, AKA a disguised Leslie and Alsatia. (Brad Bird seemingly parodied this sequence in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.) The General, unfortunately, is tracking them on a security system built into five giant wind-up robots, and unleashes a variety of his terrible toys on them. Our heroes are driven back into an old warehouse, but use the vintage Zevo toys they find there to confuse the attackers' motion sensors, drawing their fire and draining their ammo while Leslie breaches the control room and destroys the computers controlling the horde. But during the melee the escaped Sea Swine has discovered an alternate source of power--it emerges from the wreckage to wound the General and blow the head off Alsatia. How Christmasy! Not to worry--turns out Alsatia was a cyborg, created by Leslie's dad to give him a playmate growing up. Faster than Chewbacca could reassemble C-3PO, she's bolted back together, the factory is saved, Patrick is off to new adventures, and Leslie and Gwen are hosting another holiday pageant as the credits roll and the elephant flies majestically away (don't ask.)
Okay, all our spoiler-stragglers caught up? Upon its release in '92, Toys was a critical and commercial flop, largely due to its striking Magritte-influenced look and relentlessly quirky tone. The entire film takes place in a Seussian landscape that resembles nothing so much as a 3D CGI universe derived from Microsoft's default XP wallpaper, all blue sky and fluffy clouds, lush rolling hills and waist-high grass with one-lane roads connecting eccentric buildings--a bubble-blowing pachyderm! A fold-out mansion! The interior of the Zevo factory is just as quixotically whimsical--the toy-assembly area may be one of the most demented sets ever built for a major motion picture. It's kind of a reverse uncanny-valley problem. If the determinedly oddball look of the movie gets in the way of suspending your disbelief, try viewing it as a live-action Pixar release. The production and set design, and quite a few of the sight gags, are straight out of an animated feature. As for the tone, it does get seriously Sonnenfeldian, so if you weren't a fan of the TV show Pushing Daisies it might could grate on your nerves a bit. Think the Men In Black flicks crossed with Shakespeare, flavored with a little Strange Brew.
The acting, on the other hand, is excellent. To me, Leslie Zevo ties with Adrian Cronauer as the Role Robin Williams was Born to Play. The other Robin, Ms. Wright, is adorkable in a way Zooey Deschanel can only dream of, and Joan Cusack's off-kilter performance is poignant as well as hilarious. As the General, Michael Gambon is just nutty enough to balance his scariness factor. The film was one of Donald O'Connor's last roles and one of LL Cool J's first. (Plus look for Jamie Foxx in his first big-screen outing as a member of the security force.)
A word must also be said for the music, mostly written and produced by Trevor Horn, latter-day member of Yes. His "Happy Workers" song should've become the new Wobblies anthem, and Yolanda and Steve's music video is a spot-on parody of early-90s pop rock (undoubtedly due to Horn's tenure in the Buggles.) Still, poking fun at MTV is inevitably a little dated--these days Yolanda and Steve would have to be played by Snooki and the Sitch. Other folks contributing to the soundtrack include Tori Amos, Enya, Pat Metheny, Frankie Goes to Hollywood (!) and Thomas Dolby, and selected guitar licks added by Pete Haycock of the Climax Blues Band. But most importantly, the movie opens and wraps with what has become one of my favorite holiday movie jams, "The Closing of the Year," featuring former Prince proteges Wendy and Lisa.
So there you have it--weirdness, romance, suspense, fun, excellent tunage and a truly Dada-esque credit sequence, way too eccentric to be a holiday classic but just current and thought-provoking enough to be relevant in this, the Decade of the Drone and the Year of Newtown. In light of those events, you might not want to screen it for really young kids, since there is the one short sequence of gunplay and a full-on firefight at the end--but for teens on up it should be a nice change from the saccharine specials and Hallmark-style films usually inflicted on us at this time of year. Go ahead, rescue it from the Island of Misfit Christmas Movies and stick it in your queue for tonight. We could do worse than what Wendy and Lisa are offering:
If I cannot bring you comfortAuthor's Note: Thanks for taking the time. God only knows when I'll have time to check the comments today--over the river and through the woods, doncha know--but I'll try to get back sometime tonight once the merry-making is over. (Merry! Get off there! Let Pippin have a turn!) Happy Holidaze, and may yer door be darkened not by fruitcake.
then at least I bring you hope
for nothing is more precious
than the time we have and so
we all must learn from small misfortune
count the blessings that are real
let the bells ring out for christmas
at the closing of the year
let the bells ring out for christmas
at the closing of the year