A lovely, deeply creepy toy story
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, September 7, 2012
The question isn’t whether “Toys in the Attic” is any good. The question is: good for whom?
The stop-motion animated feature -- originally created in 2009 by Czech animator Jiri Barta and rereleased in a new English adaptation by Vivian Schilling -- has the plot of “Toy Story 2” with the sensibility of a Quay Brothers film. For those who are unfamiliar with the stop-motion films of Timothy and Stephen Quay, whose work is the subject of an ongoing retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, it’s beautiful but powerfully creepy stuff.
Set in a derelict building filled with broken-down furniture, cobwebs and dust, “Toys in the Attic” begins with the abduction of a china doll, Buttercup (Schilling), by a villain known only as the Head (Douglas Urbansky).
Why he’s called this is no mystery: He’s a sculptural portrait bust -- no arms or legs -- come to life. Because he has no body and can’t really move, the Head’s minions do everything for him. These helpers include a genuinely disgusting creature -- half scorpion, half man -- that crawls in and out of its master’s ear, offering advice. A ghostly disembodied arm fetches things. An eyeball at the end of a long, snaking tube provides a constant video feed of the world outside the Head’s lair. The whole movie is deliberately, uncomfortably claustrophobic, as though set in the garret of a condemned building.
A motley crew takes on the rescue mission to save Buttercup: Teddy the teddy bear (Forest Whitaker); a Quixote-like marionette named Sir Handsome (Cary Elwes); a handmade-looking stuffed mouse called Madame Curie (Joan Cusack); and a blob of brown modeling clay with a pencil-stub nose by the name of Laurent (Marcelo Tubert). Of these unlikely heroes, Laurent is most unlikely. Part Mr. Potato Head and part Mr. Bill, he’s forever getting stretched, stepped on and otherwise squashed.
The Head’s evil army includes what look like rotten potatoes with Barbie-doll legs.
All of which adds up to one weird stew. Exactly what the Head means to do with Buttercup is never really explained. Eat her? Make her his maidservant? Or something even more more unseemly? Yes, he’s just a head, but the prospect of abuse that would not be out of place in an R-rated film seems perversely possible.
In other words, this isn’t a children’s film, despite the silly premise. Barta’s early work was unequivocally geared to adults. This one seems a strange, and not entirely successful, hybrid of a kiddie story and dark, mature themes.
The animation itself is beautiful, if robotic at times. Barta has designed a richly imagined world in which Sir Handsome fights an inflatable, dragon-shaped pool toy with a sharpened pencil, and in which Madame Curie pilots a flying vacuum cleaner -- whose canister is the fuselage -- to the Head’s hideout. Flooding is created with bed sheets and expanses of black plastic.
It has a lovely, low-tech feel that’s about as far from Pixar-style perfection as possible. The downside is the vocal performances, which sound tinny and cheap, as though recorded in a closet. They don’t live up to the visuals, which are liable to give nightmares to all but the most jaded viewers.
Is it too disturbing for young children? I asked my 13-year-old son, who had just watched it with me. “Heck yes,” he said. “It’s too disturbing for me.”
Contains mild peril and intense creepiness.