With the success of The Lego Movie five years ago, it was only a matter of time before the German company behind rival toy line Playmobil® demanded their own big screen outing. “We want it to be like The Lego Movie,” the bosses might have said, “but without any of that film’s wit, imagination and clever comedy, or the self-aware stop-motion style that embraces the product’s essential toy-ness. Oh, and instead of stars like Chris Pratt, Liam Neeson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Elizabeth Banks, Alison Brie, Will Ferrell, Morgan Freeman, Will Arnett, Jake Johnson and Cobie Smulders, let’s get… oh, I don’t know… how about Adam Lambert and Meghan Trainor?”
To be fair, Playmobil: The Movie starts out well. The film opens with a live-action sequence in which teenager Marla (Anya Taylor-Joy, an absolute delight) reveals to her little brother Charlie (Gabriel Bateman, recently menaced by a toy in the woeful Child’s Play remake) that she’s just got her first passport, and – bursting into the film’s first song – that she’ll soon be off on a globe-trotting adventure, inspired by pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart’s philosophy that “adventure is worthwhile in itself”. Of course, it didn’t end well for Ms Earhart, and Marla’s own future is decidedly bleak: her parents are both killed in a car crash – yep, Playmobil: The Movie is a double “dead parent” movie – killing Marla’s wanderlust and condemning her to be both breadwinner and Charlie’s surrogate parent.
Four years later, Charlie’s fed up with having no fun any more, and runs away into the New York night, where he stumbles into a toy convention – called Toy Com. Not ToyCon. Toy Com. Go figure – including a vast Playmobil diorama that eerily mirrors the toy-based adventures he and his sister used to play before the accident. Just as Marla catches up with her little brother, a magic force or something zaps them both into the tiny toy world, transforming Charlie into a bearded Viking with superhuman strength and Marla into a Playmobil version of herself. (Because Charlie, unlike Marla, believes in the magical possibilities of Playmobil. Or something.)
Marla coming to terms with the fact that her hands are cup holders and her legs and arms have no joints (she only bends in the middle) suggests that we’re in for some post-modern Playmobil fun. The fact that, in this world, modern cities co-exist with the wild west, a Jurassic jungle, a Roman region, a princess-pink paradise and all of the other Playmobil worlds is ripe for comic exploitation, as Marla hits the road to find her lost brother, who’s been declared leader of a red-haired Viking faction he hopes are the good guys. (Best not to read too much into the fact that the blond-bearded Charlie is instantly hailed as the leader of the redbeards, or you might start looking at the ethnic spread of the cast, which is worryingly white.) Alas, after about three minutes it becomes depressingly clear that the screenwriters’ skills were only enough to get them the gig; by the end of the pitch, they had used up their ideas.
It’s true. After the set-up, which takes about ten minutes of screen time, there isn’t a single good idea in the film. Not a joke. Not a funny line. Not a clever twist on the idea of historical characters co-existing in a single place. It’s just… stuff. It’s like the scenarios Andy used to dream up in Toy Story, the ones where Woody saved Bo Peep from Mr Potato Head and his evil monkey minions, but for ninety minutes and without a single spark of imagination. Pluck any two children from the intended audience of the film, give them frontal lobotomies and some Playmobil figures to play with, and I guarantee they would come up with a more imaginative story than Blaise Hemingway, Greg Erb and Jason Oremland – I’m naming them to shame them – manage in probably six months and with a hundred thousand dollar fee. The script genuinely feels like it was poorly translated from a language based in a culture that’s so different from our own, none of the jokes play and the situations don’t make sense. (cf. any of the Moomin movies.) Example: Daniel Radcliffe voices the James Bond-like character Rex Dasher – Rex Dasher, geddit? Nope, neither does anyone else – who seems to have no reason to appear than provide a bit of Porsche product placement. But that’s the film all over: unlike The Lego Movie, which was in on its own joke, Playmobil: The Movie is exactly what it seems to be: a 99 minute toy advertisement spawned with weapons-grade cynicism by an unfeeling corporation; a soulless simulacrum of animated entertainment that makes the Transformers movies look like paragons of artistic endeavour and achievement.
But it works. Not as a movie – oh dear Lord and Miller, no. But as a sales promo for Playmobil, it’s dynamite. My seven-year-old daughter, who had previously expressed zero interest in the world of Playmobil, was ready to make a bonfire of her Barbies, Sylvanian families, Hatchimals and Ty beanie babies just to get her hands on a Playmobil playset. Perhaps Playmobil: The Movie is one of those rare movies aimed at children that doesn’t bother to put anything in for the grown-ups forced to accompany them to the cinema to sit through it.
My advice: avoid it like a choking hazard. Because taking your children to a lazy, soulless, cynical sales promo where a movie is supposed to be will just encourage more of the same.
Is Playmobil: The Movie a good movie for kids?
It is not. It’s as shameless a sales tool as it’s possible to make without displaying the catalogue number and RRP of the toys it depicts, none of the characters grow or learn or make good choices, and the underlying ethos – Amelia Earhart’s “adventure is worthwhile in itself” – feels as manufactured, plastic and fake as the toys themselves.