The title of Vivian Schilling’s English-language adaptation of Czech animator Jiri Barta’s 2009 film might suggest an Eastern European version of Pixar’s “Toy Story,” but though the script by Barta and Edgar Dutka is similarly based on the premise of toys that come to life in the absence of humans, the tone is very different. Instead of something bright and frothy, Barta’s picture is decidedly strange and often very dark.
It’s also starkly unlike the Pixar product in technical terms. Barta’s technique is undeniably primitive—hand-made in every sense. It’s also eclectic. Most of “Toys in the Attic” is in the form of stop-motion work of an extremely rudimentary sort. But occasionally he’ll throw in a bit of (very sketchy) hand-drawn animation, and—in the case of one character—what feels like claymation. And as if that weren’t enough, there are a few live-action sequences featuring human characters (as well as a character that’s a blend of a live actor with stop-motion effects).
As to plot, it’s a fairly simple if fairly gruesome business. In one area of a dusty attic, a group of forgotten toys live a communal life modeled after a human town. The most notable of them is the quartet consisting of sweet homemaker Buttercup (voiced by Schilling), her boarders Teddy, a scruffy bear (Forest Whitaker); Sir Handsome, a Don Quixote-like marionette knight made out of clothespins (Cary Elwes); and Laurent (Marcelo Tubert), a lump of clay with arms, legs and a face—sort of like a bargain-basement Mr. Potato Head.
Unfortunately, another corner of the attic is a domain of evil presided over by the plaster bust of a communist leader that looks creepily like Dr. Strangelove—and has a disembodied arm with a gloved hand to boot (as well as what looks like one of the Zanti misfits from the old “Outer Limits” series that serves as his informant, as well as his own personal evil scientist). The Head, as this villain is called, is played by actor Jiri Labus encased in a rubbery coating, and voiced by Douglas Urbanski, and he wants to kidnap Buttercup and make her his servant. He’s aided in luring her to his lair by a bunch of bugs and the human family’s cat (Americo Simonini), which periodically dresses up in disguise, at a couple of points as an old Jewish man—a curiously unseemly caricature.
When her friends discover that Buttercup’s gone, they undertake an expedition to penetrate the Head’s lair and rescue her. It’s a dangerous mission, and they’re fortunate in having the help of Madame Curie (Joan Cusack), a McGyver-like mouse who fashions them the tools they need to succeed—like a submersible boat at one point.
You have to give Barta credit for conjuring up bizarre moments that reflect what a child’s imagination might come up with while playing with inanimate toys—there’s a surrealistic dance-line, for example, that consists of doll legs topped by what looks like blobs of mud, that’s truly weird. (They’re also gyrating around a boiling cauldron in which we glimpse doll arms being boiled—an especially grotesque sight.) And some of the sequences have a quaint charm, as when he uses what appear to be garbage bags to simulate waves.
But while one can admire Barta’s individualistic artistry, you have to admit that his film does go on, especially since none of the characters have the personality of Sheriff Woody or Buzz Lightyear. And Schilling’s English dialogue leaves a good deal to be desired—the knight’s penchant for speaking in rhyme quickly grows tiresome, and one wonders whether virtually anybody (adult or child) will get a human grandmother’s World War I aside to her granddaughter to the effect that the battered Buttercup is old enough to have seen the last Austro-Hungarian emperor. That certainly hinders the voice talent, though Cusack does manage to bring some verve to Madame Curie.
Probably the closest thing to Barta’s idiosyncratic, sometimes nightmarish take on childlike imaginings in mainstream American animation would be bits of Disney’s “Fantasia,” or even the weird stuff one finds in Robert Rodriguez’s peculiar kiddie movies, especially the phantasmagoric oddities of “Sharkboy and Lava Girl.” But such off-the-beaten-path items have nothing like the really unsettling undertones of “Toys in the Attic.” Though it’s rather touching to think that someone put so much work into fashioning an English version of it, it will probably appeal mostly to fans of strange animation like the Quay brothers’ efforts, not to regular family audiences.
The original title, incidentally, translates into something like “Who has a birthday in the attic today?”—referring to the dolls’ habit of celebrating the birthday of one of their number at each evening meal.