Something's going on up there: "Toys in the Attic" raises a ruckus
“What the hell was that?!”
Krusty the Klown didn’t know what to make of Worker and Parasite, “Eastern Europe’s favorite cat and mouse team” when their indecipherable Cold War-era cartoon briefly subbed for Itchy and Scratchy.
It’s a safe bet Krusty would be far more favorably inclined towards Toys in the Attic, an animated stop motion feature directed by Jiři Barta and birthed in the Czech Republic, a land once trapped behind the “Iron Curtain” of Soviet rule.
This Toys has no relation to the 1960s stage play and movie, or Aerosmith’s 1975 album. There is a strong echo of Pixar’s Toy Story 3, wherein Woody and friends are headed for exile in the attic as Andy prepares to leave for college (but wind up in a day care center every bit as totalitarian as the attic of this film). Subsequent events save Andy’s toys from said fate…but what if they wound up in the attic after all?
And what if there were already a universe of forgotten toys up there?
Toys in the Attic is a political parable – the overthrow of communism told in miniature scale. It’s too upfront to be considered subtext either, as the film’s production notes make clear: “The world of the attic is divided into the land of happy toys in the West and the Land of Evil in the East. The despotic Head of State rules over the Land of Evil with a band of sinister minions, insects and rotted vegetables.”
The ‘Head of State’ is exactly that – a plaster bust of an autocratic dictator who rules with the aid of toy warriors, a human-headed bug and an eavesdropping eye atop a coiling length of pipe. When the Head decides to kidnap the beautiful blonde Buttercup, the doll’s toy friends set out on a rescue mission that ultimately leads to the Head’s overthrow – literally, as he tumbles from his cabinet-top perch and shatters into fragments below.
The Czech Republic (or Czechoslovakia as it was once called) has been long known for its stop-motion animators. It’s given the world filmmakers on the order of Jan Švankmajer and Jiři Trnka, whose work has influenced others – in particular the Brothers Quay (who are currently enjoying a major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), While their work is often unnerving, Toys in the Attic itself is anything but creepy. The dolls who come to Buttercup’s rescue are a mix of porcelain, plush, carved wood and fabric characters, a family of chess pieces with tiny dots for eyes – and an exceptionally heroic lump of clay with a bottle cap for a hat. The film is also a mix of animation techniques: when its stop-motion characters board a train they turn into paper drawings framed by the train’s windows (and when the camera is behind them as they look out the window they’re animated cut-outs). There’s even live action in the mix: the Head is portrayed by a live actor whose made-up face has been cgi-grafted onto that bust.This isn’t the first film to… ‘toy’ with the idea of playthings standing up to oppression; in Toy Story 3 Woody and friends help end the rule of a dictatorial teddy bear, and in the 1940’s stop-motion Czech film Revolt of the Toys (also on view in MoMA’s “Century of the Child” show), a toy carver’s creations soundly thrash a menacing Gestapo agent.
Toys in the Attic’s political aspects (a prisoner is accused of “anti-state activities”) will fly over the heads of kids who will be relishing its dense with detail tableaus and nonstop visual gags: Buttercup uses a pencil eraser to remove a tablecloth stain… a soldier’s sword is actually an old-fashioned stylus pen (not only is the pen mightier than the sword, it is a sword)…an endless flood of sheets becomes a literal flood, cascading around the old furniture in the attic and almost sweeping our heroes away…pillows serve as clouds, releasing a snowfall of feathers… an evil cat reroutes a train by erasing and redrawing its chalk tracks…and a genius cloth mouse named Madame Curie turns an old-fashioned vacuum cleaner into an airship.
Na Pude (as it was known in the Czech Republic) became Toys in the Attic under the guidance of Vivian Schilling, a novelist-writer-filmmaker. “I’d never seen anything like it – especially not in the U.S.” Schilling wrote the English language script, supervised new opening and closing credits (including a title sequence introducing the characters as ads in an old-time toy catalog) and provided Buttercup’s voice. (Schilling shared vocal duties with, among others Forest Whitaker, Joan Cusack and Cary Elwes.)
“I accepted the role for a number of reasons. Most importantly, I loved the film and wanted to be a part of it. It wasn’t until I started adapting it that I came to appreciate how important she is to film’s underlying theme.
“The evil Head initially sees Buttercup as the perfect obedient citizen, a stereotypical homemaker -- a pretty, subservient doll. When he discovers that she’s so much more than this, he tries to suppress her and then clone her into what he thinks she should be. What happened to her reminded me of the original Stepford Wives – a film I loved as a child that absolutely terrified me.”