Sometimes it takes an outside voice to show us just how homogenized a genre has become. Hollywood’s obsession with 3D and CG animation has produced some quality films of late, but even the best look a lot like all the others: the same techniques, the same imagery, the same overall tone with a few variations. Toys in the Attic comes from Czech filmmaker Jiri Barta, who employs traditional stop-motion techniques with a distinctly European feel. It stands in sharp contrast to anything we’ve seen from American filmmakers of late: equal parts creepy, whimsical and political, with an eye on adults far more than children. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but unique projects like this rarely are.
Vivian Schilling took on the job of adapting the script to English, in the hopes of making Barta accessible to a wider audience. The transition doesn’t always run smoothly, with non-sequiturs and periodic dead space clogging the narrative. On the other hand, the surreal nature of the story renders those hiccups nearly invisible, more a case of inadvertent atmosphere than clunky filmmaking.
Then again, “clunky” actively adds to the charm here, along with the deliberately run-down environment and worn toy characters. They live in an abandoned attic in Prague, surrounded by dust and rusty metal, and yet living surprisingly joyful lives. That is, the happy toys in the west side of the attic do. The east, occupied by rotting potato-men and ruled by the iron bust of an unnamed political figure, resembles the oppressive Eastern Bloc of the Cold War. When the ruling “Head” (voiced by Douglas Urbanski) kidnaps the beautiful Buttercup (voiced by Schilling) to serve as his bride, it’s up to her happy friends to save her. Led by the stalwart teddy bear Teddy (voiced by Forest Whitaker), the rhyming marionette Sir Handsome (voiced by Cary Elwes) and the inventive mouse Madame Curie (voiced by Joan Cusack), they journey across an ostensibly mundane landscape transformed by Barta’s technique into an imposing wilderness.
The narrative itself is fairly boilerplate, while the characters stay one-note from beginning to end. Far more interesting, however, is the subtext Barta uses to fill his make-believe world. The references to communism are open and obvious, with The Head standing in for Pick-Your-Soviet-Overlord and his regimented minions ruthlessly oppressing all who stand in his way. Barta apparently lost his mother to the Czech secret police before the fall of the Iron Curtain, which lends a creepy poignancy to Buttercup’s dilemma.
On a more general level, however, Toys in the Attic does wonders with its notions of corruption and decay. The “toys” here are all cast off and forgotten. Time has treated them poorly, but they would have felt crude and shabby even in their prime. Their world reflects the ashes of history, with layers of dust and junk walling them in from every corner. Used up and discarded, they exist as living reminders of an apocalyptic past. The forces of The Head actively rot from within, while the various threats they unleash threaten to bury the heroes beneath inky black oblivion.
And yet that world holds whimsy and child-like innocence as well as debris. The heroes engage in tea parties and speak simple platitudes about friendship, while rolling a special die to determine who gets a birthday celebration each day. They even go to work on a cobbled-together train, with Mr. Handsome off to fight dragons the same way an accountant might take the morning commute to his office. Barta strikes an ideal contrast between their Pollyanna existence and the trash that surrounds them, implying that life thrives even in the bleakest environments.
That gives Toys in the Attic a fresh take on the “simple enough for children, sophisticated enough for grown-ups” idea. Adults will respond most enthusiastically to it, though younger children should appreciate the straightforward adventure framed by the haunting visuals. You can see the threads of other animators here – fellow Czech Jan Švankmajer remains a strong influence and the Toy Story inspiration is self-evident – but Barta stays true to his own ideas throughout. Toys in the Attic receives only limited theatrical release before its video debut, but if you have the opportunity to see it, don’t pass it by. It reminds us of animation’s myriad incarnations… and how few of them Hollywood seems interested in supporting.