Sept 7, 2012
Toy Story by way of Jungian subconscious, this phantasmagoric stop-motion animated feature by Jiří Barta, the director called “the European Tim Burton,” is a rich, multi-course meal of images both enchanting and disturbing—the right mix for childhood, in other words.
As un-glossy as that Pixar masterpiece is polished, Toys in the Attic, released in the Czech Republic in 2009, was picked up the following year by Paris-based Eurocine Films for a worldwide theatrical market. Actress-filmmaker-novelist Vivian Schilling—whose books include the novels Sacred Prey and Quietus—adapted the material to English with primarily American actors. The frame-by-frame film itself took 50 animators three years to complete, the production notes say. It’s all been worth the wait: Leaving aside its potential adult audience of art-film aficionados, it’s a great next step up for kids who’ve already seen from the likes of Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle) that there’s more to animation than fairy-tale princesses, wisecracking cars, incredible superheroes and big-eyed robots. There’s also grime, soot, stained floors, dripping water from leaky pipes, and all the other signifiers of things long forgotten—of childhood fancies handed down, the worse for wear, as generations grow up, until they’re finally left behind. Sometimes an attic is not just an attic.
For all the sad and faded memories this implies, the old-fashioned toys of this story are a cheerful lot. The railway stationmaster teddy bear, Teddy (Forest Whitaker), goes to work each day, seeing off the Don Quixote-like marionette Sir Handsome (Cary Elwes) as he goes off to battle an inflatable dragon, while the lady of the toy box, Buttercup (Schilling), makes a birthday cake each day—the toys roll dice to see whose birthday it gets to be. But a creepy, snakelike metal tube with an eye at the end is spying on Buttercup for The Head (Jiri Labus, with voice by Douglas Urbanski), the green-skinned, cigar-smoking head of state, so to speak, of the Land of Evil. Analogize Eastern European politics much, Jiří?
When The Head has Buttercup kidnapped, Teddy, Sir Handsome and a protean, shapeshifting blob called Laurent (Marcelo Tubert) set out to rescue her. They’re helped along the way by inventor mouse Madam Curie (Joan Cusack). The feisty Buttercup, who chafes at her confinement, is plagued by a black cat (Americo Simonini) whose allegiance and motivation never quite seem certain. Like a real cat.
After a slow start, the film—alternately known as In the Attic or Who Has a Birthday Today? and Na Půdě—swirls along with an almost stream-of-consciousness imagination, where pillows inflate to become clouds, bedsheets and linens rage as a terrible flood, and ladybugs harbor horrors. Our test audience of two 11-year-old boys remained riveted throughout, as did the adults. A coda featuring essentially a portable black hole goes unexplained, but creates indelible visuals nonetheless.
Recalling everything from the Quay Brothers to Yellow Submarine, the wondrous Toys in the Attic is the safest acid trip your kids will ever take.