Playmobil, the toys, are recommended for children ages 4 through 12. As for Playmobil: The Movie, it’s safe to say that anyone who has already reached double digits will find little to enjoy in this generic and lifeless promotional tool from director Lino DiSalvo, who served as head animator on Frozen and Tangled.
At best, the pic, which cost a purported $75 million and will be released by STXfilms (who picked it up from a bankrupted Open Road), has the distinct merit of trying to feature what looks like every single Playmobil item available in the company’s catalogue. It’s a tour-de-force of blatant salesmanship that, in narrative terms, comes across as absolute nonsense. Nonetheless, tykes who get a kick out of playing with the beloved German toys may drag their parents to see them in theaters.
It’s hard to see what exactly compelled these filmmakers to take on such a dubious enterprise, if it wasn’t to complete a massive marketing order from Brandstatter Group, who has been manufacturing Playmobil since the mid-1970s. Or perhaps the idea was, if not exactly to one-up, at least to succeed in what Lego has already done with their string of movies and TV shows bringing their gamut of products to life.
The difference, however, is that the original Lego film managed the rather cynical feat of both poking fun at such a shameless undertaking and making it seem extremely entertaining in the end. And even though its message was that Legos are best enjoyed when tossing out the instructions and using your own inner creativity, the actual result of the film was that millions of kids ran out to buy Batman Lego, Superman Lego and any other branded content promoted onscreen, including The Lego Movie Lego.
Here, there’s hardly any second-degree humor or meta-fictionalization à la Lord and Miller, with DiSalvo and writers Blaise Hemingway, Greg Erb and Jason Oremland basically shoving as many toys in our faces as they can for 110 minutes. To do so, they construct a boilerplate narrative where a 10-year-old boy, Charlie (Gabriel Bateman), and his teenage sister, Marla (Anya Taylor-Joy of The Witch), get magically whisked away into Playmobil-land and have to run the gauntlet of the brand’s best-selling designs: Vikings, knights, pirates, cavemen, secret agents, robots, Romans, et al.
The impetus for all this is that Charlie and Marla’s parents were tragically killed in a car accident, which we learn about in a live-action opening scene that’s first preceded by a musical number. (Yes, there are also musical numbers here.) Four years later, Marla has lost her adventurous spirit, while Charlie still wants to dream and go places. Luckily, the products of Playmobil are there to show them the way — because what else do kids need to cope with death if it’s not pieces of colored plastic with highly inflexible appendages, creepy smiles and bowl haircuts?
Once they’re transformed into animated characters, Charlie soon winds up prisoner in a Gladiator-like kingdom ruled by the evil Emperor Maximums (Adam Lambert), prompting Marla to team up with a hipster food truck driver (Jim Gaffigan, providing vague comic relief) and a ridiculous secret agent (Daniel Radcliffe) to get her bro back. Along the way, she runs into tons of other merchandise, although it’s uncertain at this point whether the figure of Glinara (Maddie Taylor) — basically a female Jabba the Hut decked out in a sleeveless leather dress — was something already made by Playmobil or a creature the filmmakers invented for the hell of it.
Otherwise, everything goes exactly where you expect, from the live-action scenes bookending the cartoon to the nonstop chases and thundering soundtrack to all the attempts at humor that mostly miss their mark. To the director’s credit, the animated sequences are richly rendered, making the most of the rather stiff and plain-looking originals (though, if you want to get nitpicky, an early gag poking fun at the fact that Playmobil legs are unbendable is soon forgotten) and offering up a plethora of settings that help compensate for the lack of good writing.
If the moral of The Lego Movie was “be creative and buy Lego,” the moral here seems to be to “be bold and buy Playmobil,” because the latter will take you around the world and across time into parts unknown. Too bad that idea is conveyed in such a remarkably unadventurous way, as if everyone involved were playing it safe to avoid mixed messages. The result is not only a work that places its products into every last pixel of screen space, it places them above the film itself. There’s no “the movie,” there’s just Playmobil.
Production companies: Little Dragon, 2.9 Film Holding, Moritz Morman, Moren Studios
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Gabriel Bateman, Daniel Radcliffe, Karen Strassman, Jim Gaffigan, Kenan Thompson, Adam Lambert
Director: Lino DiSalvo
Screenwriters: Blaise Hemingway, Greg Erb, Jason Oremland, from a story by Lino DiSalvo
Producers: Aton Soumache, Dimitri Rassam, Moritz Borman, Alexis Vonarb, Axel Von Maydell, Timothy Burrill, Bin Wu
Executive producers: Emmanuel Jacomet, Lino DiSalvo, Tito Ortiz, Greg Erb, Jason Oremland, Bahman Naraghi, Dan Mintz
Director of photography: Andre Turpin
Production designer: Remi Salmon
Editor: Maurissa Horwitz
Composer: Heitor Pereira
Casting directors: Mary Vernieu, Randi Wells