Intricate and Odd, With Little Child’s Play
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: September 6, 2012
Above: Buttercup, held prisoner, is a character in the director Jiri Barta’s “Toys in the Attic.”
The strange, often beautiful beings in the animated feature “Toys in the Attic” exist in a faraway land located somewhere between Czech surrealism and Pixar communitarianism. A simple story intricately told, it centers on a small familial group — a doll named Buttercup, a teddy bear, a marionette and a blob — whose happy life is threatened by a bust of a bald man that looks as if it once sat on a pedestal in Communist Party headquarters. The bust is attended to by a motley assortment of minions, including what looks like a termite with a human head, and a severed arm wearing a black leather glove, which suggests that the director Jiri Barta is a Stanley Kubrick fan.
Dr. Earwig is also a character in the film. Mr. Barta is more than a decade younger than his compatriot the animator Jan Svankmajer, and less well known, at least in the United States. “Toys in the Attic” isn’t as unsettling as Mr. Svankmajer’s work, but even in this English-language version, it’s scarcely a cute and cuddly family film of the generic type often foisted on American tots. Leaving a screening, a colleague remarked that it may not be right for children, though much depends on the kid. In truth, the movie should be manna for anyone who likes animated fantasias without wisecracks, commercials and overwrought warbling about self-actualization, meaning that it’s suitable for those who will grow up either to be the next Tim Burton or simply to enjoy his movies.
“Toys in the Attic” also isn’t a Sunday sermon, though it does turn on a story of good versus evil, if one executed with paper bits and chess pieces, oiled gears and chalked lines, as well as a great deal of meticulously executed stop-motion animation. Written by Mr. Barta and Edgar Dutka, it opens with Buttercup (voiced by Vivian Schilling, who did the English-language adaptation) bustling around the old suitcase where she lives with Teddy (Forest Whitaker); Sir Handsome (Cary Elwes), a marionette who’s something of a Don Quixote figure; and a lump, Laurent (Marcelo Tubert), who looks like a Mr. Potato Head made out of clay and the stub of a pencil. The story, such as it is, kicks in after Buttercup makes breakfast, and Sir and Teddy head off to work and play.
This familiar pantomime of gender is somewhat deflating and makes a disappointingly conventional contrast to the inventiveness of the visuals. The typecasting continues when the bust and his followers kidnap Buttercup, leading Teddy, Sir Handsome and Laurent to dash, stumble and bumble to her rescue. Things improve, at least on the level of sex roles and stereotypes, with the endlessly resourceful Madame Curie (Joan Cusack), a mouse whose miraculous way with transforming everyday objects into extraordinary ones suggests that she’s a surrogate for Mr. Barta. Madame Curie tosses out an occasional word in Yiddish and may be a nod to “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s graphic epic about the Holocaust. (For many years Mr. Barta tried to finish a feature version of “The Golem.”)
There are moments that suggest that Mr. Barta would have liked to have gone darker in “Toys in the Attic” than he has. In one of the more delightfully weird scenes, some battered Barbie doll-style legs, with what look like moldering potatoes for torsos and heads, dance about and dementedly implore the bust (voiced by Douglas Urbanski and “played” by Jiri Labus) to give them Buttercup. A quick shot of doll hands boiling in a pot appears to confirm the vague worst. Given that the legs don’t have hands, they may be eating their own bodies, which suggests that there may be a metaphor afloat here — something about the folly of those who devour their own — in between some glorious imagery and what is finally a sweet little story.
“Toys in the Attic” is rated PG. (Parental guidance suggested.) There are some scary passages and smoking.
Toys in the Attic
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Directed by Jiri Barta; written by Mr. Barta and Edgar Dutka; director of photography, Ivan Vit; edited by Lucie Haladova; music by Michal Pavlicek;
production design by Rudolf Balwar; produced by Miloslav Smidmajer; English
adaptation written, produced and directed by Vivian Schilling; released by
Hannover House. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.
WITH THE VOICES OF: Forest Whitaker (Teddy), Joan Cusack (Madame Curie), Cary
Elwes (Sir Handsome), Vivian Schilling (Buttercup), Emily Hahn (Andrejka),
Douglas Urbanski (the Head), Marcelo Tubert (Laurent) and Americo Simonini