Dir: Lino DiSalvo. Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Daniel Radcliffe, Jim Gaffigan, Kenan Thompson, Gabriel Bateman, and Adam Lambert. U cert, 99 mins
It’d be too much to ask Germany’s Brandstatter Group, the makers of Playmobil, to sit idly by and watch Lego take all the glory. Not when there are stacks upon stacks of money to be made. Yet, Playmobil: The Movie is missing the vital ingredient that made its competitor’s cinematic franchise, kicked off by 2014’s The Lego Movie, such a hit with both critics and audiences: it never sells us any ideas or themes, only some pieces of moulded plastic. It’s a feature-length ad that never puts across why these toys, and the world they inhabit, should feel any more special than the hundreds of other playsets lining store shelves. This is a film that exists because it has to exist – it has no interest in justifying itself any further.
Anyone who is growing up (or has grown up) with Playmobil – 3-inch tall figures with blank smiles and a range of buildings, animals, and vehicles – may struggle to connect the film to their own experiences. While The Lego Movie went big on the idea that clicking together plastic bricks can open up the door to an infinite number of combinations, meaning children are only limited by their own imaginations, Playmobil: The Movie fails to conjure up anything half as motivating. The story follows two siblings – 10-year-old Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) and teenage Marla (Anya Taylor-Joy) – whose parents are swiftly killed off in a car accident minutes into the film’s runtime.
Marla had dreams of travelling the world, but those have been put aside now that she has to care for her brother. Soon enough, the pair are magically transported into the world of Playmobil so that she can find her inner adventurer, traversing the worlds of pirates, Vikings, and the wild wild west in search of Charlie, after he’s kidnapped by the maniacal Roman emperor Maximus (Adam Lambert). Thankfully, she finds help along the way in the form of food truck driver Del (Jim Gaffigan), who has a particular knack for making spicy breakfast burritos.
In short, it’s all a big boast about what a wide range of toys Playmobil has on offer, as Marla’s journey ensures she takes in all the sights. But there’s a confusing logic here. The dinosaurs and fairy castles will certainly feel familiar to young audiences, but what about Cold War-era Moscow? That’s the location of one particular detour in the story that sees Marla cross paths with Rex Dasher (Daniel Radcliffe), a riff on James Bond complete with his own theme tune. And why do we then suddenly end up in a Playmobil-ified version of Blade Runner, as ruled over by a gender-swapped version of Jabba the Hutt (Maddie Taylor’s Glinara)? And though, under the direction of Lino DiSalvo, the film looks as bright and colourful as it needs to be, many of the figures are given unnecessary textures. Shouldn’t everything be plastic? Then why do the horses have fur? As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly hard to connect what’s going on onscreen with any sort of tangible reality of what Playmobil are and how kids interact with them.
There’s very little in terms of self-referential humour and, although there are a few musical numbers scattered throughout, they’re desperately uncatchy. It’s as if they’ve been written in the style of Les Miserables – there’s no chorus and the characters simply just say things to a tune. The only exception is when Meghan Trainor turns up as a fairy godmother and delivers one of her trademark empowerment anthems. Credit must go to Taylor-Joy, at least, who delivers such an enthusiastic performance that it’ll make for a strong audition tape for the role of Rapunzel in Disney’s inevitable live-action remake of Tangled. But the actor’s powering through a world that makes little thematic or practical sense. There’s no real explanation given as to why these two kids end up sucked into the world of toys, other than the idea that Playmobil simply willed it to be so. Neither is there much room to suggest it was all just in their imaginations. It’s a framework that means the entire film lacks in drive and purpose. Playmobil: The Movie may offer a breathless trip through its product catalogue, but there’s not much else here to discover.
Playmobil: The Movie is released in UK cinemas on 9 August
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