An eccentric toymaker leaves his factory to his militaristic brother, much to the dismay of his children Alsatia and Leslie. When the General starts using the factory to produce weapons, Leslie and Alsatia realise they need to regain control.
"May joy and innocence prevail," is the epitaph on a character's tomb in this fantastically bizarre fable which uses themes of madness, power, lust and war extravagantly played out in a toy factory to reiterate the message.
When jokester toy magnate Kenneth Zevo (Make 'Em Laugh man Donald O'Connor in a wacky cameo) expires, he leaves control of his happy kingdom to his redundant hawk US Army general brother (Gambon) rather than to his children Leslie and Alsatia (Williams and Cusack) who are, respectively, a flake and a fragile, childlike loon.
How the general runs the business, his evil intent, and Leslie's leap from clown to champion of sweetness and light make for a quirky, soppy narrative that is part Grimm, part Gilliam and part Kubrick. Devoid at times of both taste and sense, but at others madly endearing, this was written years ago by Levinson and his first wife Valerie Curtin and understandably shunned by pragmatic studios until stock in the firm of Levinson and Williams rose high enough to attract the necessarily hefty budget.
Necessary, because whatever one makes of this touchingly naive labour of love, it is a work that, visually, one would never have looked to Levinson for, an eye-popping, surreal dreamworld that is a constant delight to look at between Ferdinando Scarfiotti's brilliant production design and Albert Wolsky's witty costumes. The Zevo mansion folds out of a hillside like a spread in a fairytale pop-up book; a music video the Zevo siblings make marries Magritte to MTV; the bright primary colours of the factory throw up astonishing and extremely weird jokes ; and the climactic battle between the forces of good and evil — clockwork nursery toys and miniature weapons of destruction — is executed like a mechanical ballet envisioned in a nightmare.
And if the characters are grotesques — think Dr. Strangelove, meets Tom Thumb in Brazil and you're approaching the ball park — Williams is at his most appealing here, squeezing in hilarious impersonations of Michael Williams and Mother Theresa, Cusack is extraordinary and L. L. Cool J. as Gambon's son can also hold his head up for a usefully amusing turn.
A riot of confused, clever and dazzling moments, Toys is a true formula-defying one-off for which the phrase "love it or loathe it" might have been coined, and one so audaciously zany that you will be captivated or enraged.