Toys in the Attic, Hannover House’s 2012 English adaptation of Jiri Barta’s 2009 Czech Republic stop-motion film In The Attic: Who Has A Birthday Today?, is a story about toys that come to life when humans aren’t around.
I realize that this is going to draw comparisons to Pixar’s much beloved Toy Story series, so let’s get that out of the way first.
Pixar knew that early computer animation tended to make things look slick and plastic, so they just went with it and made a story about toys. Toy Story is meant to draw us into the world of American child’s playroom, and that means it’s filled with colorful, shiny, corporate plastic.
Toys in the Attic is set in an attic in Prague, and features toys too old-fashioned and broken even for Eastern European children. Instead of slick computer graphics it uses a brilliant mix of hand-crafted stop motion, two-dimensional and cutout animation, plus a smattering of live action, to bring its grimy antique cast and their dusty dilapidated world to life.
The various styles of animation are masterfully melded into film that finds both heartbreaking beauty and terrifying ugliness in the old, the dirty, and the forgotten. Imagination seems to transform pieced-together collections of ordinary objects into terrifying obstacles and modes of adventure. Seeing pillows float to the ceiling to become clouds, blue sheets pouring across the room as a raging river, or black plastic spilling out to create a black sea creates a feeling that one is experiencing a waking dream, where the logic of events is at the whim of the story and dreamer. And yet, there’s still enough of a traditional narrative here to make it a good introductory movie for those interested in the artsier side of stop-motion animation.
The primary plot is very simple. Lovely doll Buttercup, voiced by Vivian Schilling, is kidnapped from the happy, idyllic side of the attic and taken to the land of evil by the forces of the evil Head, a very European, very tacky gold bust of a fat bald man wearing glitzy sunglasses. Her friends Teddy, a bumbling teddy bear voiced by Forest Whitaker; Sir Handsome, a Quixotic antique knight missing his armor voiced by Carey Elwes; genius mechanical mouse Madame Curie, voiced by Joan Cusack; and the other good toys in the attic go on a dangerous mission to save her.
There’s definitely some political allegory beneath the surface. The cold war references are hard to miss. The good toys who live in the west are pampered and industrious bourgeoisie that love birthdays and go to work every day to cooperatively do things like run a train line and fight inflatable dragons. The Land of Evil in the east is divided from their side by a checkpoint and is the gray and filthy home of nasty no-goodniks. Some of them are violent-looking action figures, but most of them aren’t even toys, they are things made of wire and clamps, rotten potatoes with Barbie doll legs, and sinister cockroach surgeons. They obey the absolute will of the fascist Head and use force, trickery, and surveillance to bedevil the good toys. Heck, they literally live on a Black Sea, it’s just made of plastic garbage bags they can roll up.
And in one of the live action sequences an old woman picks up Buttercup and says she is old enough to have been played with by royalty. Maybe she represents the stolen soul of the Eastern European people, suffering under communism and brought back to them by the democracy movements that ended the cold war. Maybe not, it doesn’t really matter. The underlying allegories aren’t necessary to enjoy the film.
The greatest joy of Toys in the Attic is how sublimely it presents and blends the various forms of animation that make up its world. A stop-motion train might feature white smoke drawn directly onto the film, live action characters have stop-motion counterparts, and when the stop-motion characters are reflected in a window they are represented by 2D animation.
The stop-motion itself is not as smooth as you see in something like Laika’s new ParaNorman, but the slight choppiness contributes to the otherworldly effect. The film also features clay animation characters in addition to the wooden and ceramic ones, so there is an opportunity for some expressive squash and stretch.
Another element that makes this US release of Toys in the Attic a good entry point is the care that Schilling, the director of this version, has taken with adapting Barta’s film to English. Dialogue generally feels natural and the main story is clear, although it’s possible some of the politics got lost in translation. The voice cast is mostly excellent, and benefits greatly from the Hollywood star power of Elwes, Whitaker, and Cusack.
A couple of things will probably keep this from ending up in your kid’s DVD collection, however. The first is that Hollywood actors can’t mask the unmistakable European feel of the visuals. Another is that the Land of Evil is, really, really evil. Its inhabitants are creepy and intense, and the degradations and hardships they submit Buttercup to and the things they do to discourage her friends from saving her might be too much for some younger viewers.
But for lovers of animation this is a movie not to miss. Put Toy Story’s sunny playroom out of your mind and see how wonderful a dusty old attic can be.