A stop-motion Toy Story cast in a malevolent-fable mold, Toys in the Attic finds alternating wonder and menace through the adventure of some dusty toys compelled to embark on an epic journey to find one of their friends. Czech director Jirí Barta’s film, rewritten and dubbed for English audiences by Vivian Schilling, has a herky-jerky vintage aesthetic that will be recognizable to anyone familiar with the work of Jan Svankmajer, employing a motley crew of real playthings—with immobile expressions and limited limb articulation—and identifiable everyday objects with consistent inventiveness, his animation style marked by an expressiveness of movement that creates a sense of genuine life for his protagonists.
Also employing computer and hand-drawn elements, as well as the occasional human or cat to heighten the sense that his action proper takes place in a secret, magical world, Barta’s story has a formal majesty that does much to enliven its rather standard rescue-mission tale.
That story concerns the evil Head (Douglas Urbanski), an imposing statue bust who rules the Land of Evil with his army of creepy-crawly minions, who kidnaps beautiful motherly Buttercup (Vivian Schilling), thus compelling train conductor Teddy (Forest Whitaker), dragon-slaying Sir Handsome (Cary Elwes), lumpy clay-man Laurent (Marcel Tubert), and radio-announcer mouse Madam Curie (Joan Cusack) to venture from their home to save her. Their quest involves escapes from roaring rapids (i.e. wet sheets) and surviving a sinking ship, all while Buttercup attempts to extricate herself from her predicament—a goal that’s often stymied by a pesky feline employed by the Head whom Barta dramatizes via both a real cat and a stop-motion figure in a hilarious disguise of shoes, overcoat, hat, glasses, gloves, and white beard.
Each day, Buttercup and her friends roll a die to determine whose birthday it is, resulting in a cake celebration that Barta visualizes with a nifty sparkling-candle effect, but if Toys in the Attic is a consistently marvel of dark beauty, it’s nonetheless rather skimpy in the thematic department, with Buttercup’s final triumphant proclamation, “We were all born anew,” hinting at rebirth-related undercurrents that never fully coalesce. Furthermore, while the voice cast is boisterous, the characters remain somewhat two-dimensional, defined more by superficial traits (for example, Sir Handsome is brave and often speaks in rhyme) than by deeper-rooted beliefs or attributes. Nonetheless, the film’s creative spirit rarely flags, and late, subtle allusions to both Snow White and Cinderella—alongside a style that melds the beautiful, ratty, and grotesque with hallucinatory grace—properly cast the film as a disturbing through-the-looking-glass reflection of traditional fairy tales.