Film Review: ‘Playmobil: The Movie’

Kid-friendly but disappointingly short on charm or smarts, this toy-based toon largely serves to flatter the 'Lego Movie' franchise by comparison.

Playmobil the Movie
Courtesy of STX Entertainment

Tucked in the closing credits of “Playmobil: The Movie” is a dedication to Horst Brandstätter, the German entrepreneur whose company began production of the now-iconic Playmobil toys in the 1970s — acknowledging a vast popular legacy for the dinky figurines that now extends to a whole animated feature. It’s a nice touch, if a tellingly incomplete one: Unmentioned is Hans Beck, the inventor who designed and developed the toys themselves, and by the end of this snazzy but shrilly synthetic kids’ romp, it’s hardly surprising to see business acumen honored ahead of creative input. An attempt to do for the smiling, claw-handed Playmobil collective what “The Lego Movie” did for the humble plastic brick — but without that blockbuster’s dizzy, self-aware wit and visual invention — Lino DiSalvo’s hyperactive film never transcends its blatant product-flogging purpose.

The result, brightly stuffed with pirates and vikings and glitter-winged creatures at every turn, will no doubt please very young viewers as it unrolls across Europe and beyond this summer, though it makes precious few concessions to their summer-fatigued parents. (STX Entertainment has pushed the U.S. release to early December, which should at least get a few Playmobil sets on various Christmas wishlists.) A former Disney animator integral to the success of “Frozen” and “Tangled,” DiSalvo piles on the plastic spectacle in his directorial debut, whizzing his audience frantically through a slideshow of disparate dayglo environments that also, of course, handily showcases the breadth of the Playmobil range: the Wild West one second, ancient Rome the next, with dragons and 21st-century cars equally at home in either. The words “Collect ’em all!” never actually appear on screen, but the directive is felt.

This approach, not so much world-building as world-displaying, ensures that “Playmobil: The Movie” never stalls: Like a child eagerly showing off their toy collection, it’s always got something new and sparkly to wave in our faces. It does, however, show up the distracted raggedness of the film’s storytelling, which is heavy on moment-to-moment activity and perilously light on consequential action. A thin quest narrative, patched together from “Peter Pan,” “Labyrinth” and assorted Disney-Pixar offcuts, plunges two orphaned New York siblings into the iridescent cartoon universe of Playmobil, essentially stranding them there until both reconnect with the childhood joy they once knew. No prizes for guessing what they played with in those halcyon days.

An over-extended live-action prologue introduces perky high school senior Marla (Anya Taylor-Joy, very far from the cool adult rigors of “Thoroughbreds” and “The Witch”), who’s preparing to travel the world once she graduates. The first of several unmemorable musical numbers details all the planned adventures that she and her fanciful kid brother Charlie (the talented Gabriel Bateman, appearing more juvenile than in “Child’s Play”) have hitherto only enacted in plastic. Yet when tragedy strikes and her parents are killed in a car accident — a tactful reveal that may nonetheless strike an overly glum note for very small fry — her dreams are deferred. Cut to four years later, and the responsibilities of guardianship have hardened and dispirited Marla in ways only a clumsily engineered visit to a magical branded model fair can remedy: Beamed into a sprawling diorama of the three-inch wonders, she and Charlie emerge as animated, Playmobilized versions of themselves.

Well, she has; Charlie gets to be a fierce, tattooed Viking warrior, immediately hero-worshipped by his fellow Norsemen for prowess in battle. (Boys seemingly have most of the fun in this universe, while girls get to be fairy godmothers or vindictive villainesses.) Within minutes, he’s abducted by maniacal Roman emperor Maximus (Adam Lambert), who it turns out is building a gladiator squad of imprisoned heroes from other Playmobil lines: pirates, Amazonians and even Rex Dasher, a slick-but-dim 007 clone voiced rather plummily by Daniel Radcliffe. It’s up to Marla to traverse this disordered realm and rescue him, with a wisecracking assist from food-truck driver Del (Jim Gaffigan), and occasional stops for songs that, even when handled by actual pop stars like Lambert and Meghan Trainor, have remarkably little melodic staying power.

Despite ostensibly strong emotional stakes upfront, with our heroine burdened by familial grief and guilt, it’s hard to care much when it feels like so much pretext for a feature-length commercial — in particular, a tacked-on moral championing the liberating virtues of pure imagination rings a bit hollow amid the avalanche of obvious merchandising. Where “The Lego Movie” subverted this irony with its own wry meta-commentary on the tension between product and character, “Playmobil: The Movie” is neither as thoughtful nor as playful, having less fun than you might think with the built-in absurdities and anachronisms of a crazy-quilt toyland where cowboys and dinosaurs live side by side. Even the “Angry Birds” films found more scope for outright hilarity in their cynical framework.

Meanwhile, after the film’s first, amusing animated scene, in which Marla struggles to adapt to the stiff joints of her Playmobil body, the figurines are swiftly treated as any other madly scrambling (and scrambled) cartoon characters. If you’re hoping for at least one sight gag at the expense of the Playmobil population’s signature horseshoe-shaped paws, for example, none comes; even the corporate branding here isn’t all that distinctive.

From a purely technical standpoint, DiSalvo’s Mouse House-honed expertise is evident in the soda-pop sheen of the animation, fully embracing the airbrushed fluidity of computer graphics where one might have expected at least a tip of the hat to the stop-motion aesthetic of the toys themselves. Here, as in so many other departments, “Playmobil: The Movie” could stand to be scrappier, to shed some focus-grouped slickness for a soul of its own. “Adventure is worthwhile in itself,” Marla observes, quoting her childhood heroine Amelia Earhart; for all its organized chaos, this proficient promotional exercise hardly walks the talk.

Film Review: ‘Playmobil: The Movie’

Reviewed at 20th Century-Fox screening room, London, Aug. 5, 2019. (In Annecy Film Festival — opener.) Running time: <strong>99 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Animated — U.K.-France-Germany) An STXfilms (in U.S.)/StudioCanal (in U.K.) presentation of an ON Animation Studios production in association with DMG Entertainment. (International sales: Lionsgate, London.) Producers: Aton Soumache, Dimitri Rassam, Alexis Vonarb, Axel Von Maydell, Moritz Borman, Timothy Burrill, Bin Wu. Executive producers: Lino DiSalvo, Greg Erb, Adam Fogelson, Stephan Franck, Tito Ortiz, Emmanuel Jacomet, Jason Oremland, Bahman Naraghi, Dan Mintz, Robert Simonds.
  • Crew: Director: Lino DiSalvo. Screenplay: Blaise Hemingway, Greg Erb, Jason Oremland, from a story by DiSalvo. Camera (color): Andre Turpin. Editor: Maurissa Horwitz. Music: Heitor Pereira.
  • With: Anya Taylor-Joy, Gabriel Bateman, Jim Gaffigan, Daniel Radcliffe, Adam Lambert , Maddie Taylor, Kenan Thompson, Meghan Trainor, Lino DiSalvo.