LIST CANDIDATE: TOYS IN THE ATTIC (2009)

Na pude; Na pude aneb Kdo má dneska narozeniny?

DIRECTED BY: Jirí Barta

FEATURING: Vivian Schilling, Douglas Urbanski, Forest Whitaker, , Joan Cusak (US dubbed version)

PLOT: When the doll Buttercup is kidnapped by a plaster head, a teddy bear, a marionette knight and a mechanical mouse must journey to the other side of the attic to save her.

Still from Toys in the Attic [Na Pude] (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Trust the Czechs to take the basic notion of Toy Story (the private lives of toys when their owners aren’t around) and turn it into a creepy stop-motion parable about totalitarianism wherein a head and his army of vermin kidnap a doll and attempt to brainwash her. Sure, it’s a bit weird, but apparently Czech children are into “weird”…

COMMENTS: It seems lazy and obvious to describe Toys in the Attic as 50% Toy Story, 50% , but that’s exactly the way it plays out. The movie, which takes dusty Communist-era toys and knick-knacks and brings them to creaky life, splits the difference between sentimentality and nightmarishness straight down the middle. The tale begins by introducing the retired playthings’ domestic life, as mother-figure Buttercup prepares breakfast for the other toys: a mechanical mouse with button ears, a battered teddy bear, a wooden Don Quixote marionette who speaks in rhyming couplets, and some sort of nutty clay homunculus with a pencil nose and a bottle cap hat. Their first act of business is to roll a die to figure out who has a birthday that day; the cake’s candle flames are simulated with a cascade of colored tinsel. The toys then each march off to their daily jobs (for the knight Sir Handsome, this involves slaying an inflatable dragon; when his pencil lance pierces its hide, a monkey nurse pops out and patches the beast up). Meanwhile, the bust of a Head spies on the happy toys via an eyeball embedded in a slithering hose, and their storybook existence is shattered when a little girl finds Buttercup and accidentally leaves her in the area of the attic controlled by the Head. The Head, whose existence in the household is never rationalized, is a magnificent creation, spookily realized by a live actor (which ironically makes him an alien creature in the artificial stop-motion world). He’s a bespectacled apparatchik with spies everywhere and a voice like Steve Martin’s “wild and crazy guy.” Besides his “snakey eye,” his minions include a house cat who goes undercover as an old man, a scorpion with eyeglasses and a  mustache, and a chorus line of rotten potatoes with Rockette gams. And there’s even more weird stuff along the journey, including a floods made up of pillowcases and garbage bags, watches that inexplicably turn into black holes, and a celebratory disco feast thrown by the Head. As in Svankamjer’s animated worlds, the animated objects here are antique and distressed: it’s a world of recycled tin cans, rusty nails, and unfinished furniture. There’s a nostalgia for the perishability and endurance of handcrafted things. Besides the Svankmajerian stop-motion, traditional animation also pops up in unexpected places throughout the film: when Buttercup opens a hand-drawn window in the attic, she sees a bird drawn in a kid’s cartoon scrawl pecking and flying about. If you’re looking for a “logical” explanation, I think that the movie could be understood as an imaginary story made up by the little girl who discovers the old toys to entertain herself on an otherwise dull afternoon at grandma’s house. The film has that loose, improvisatory, anything-can-happen quality of “make believe” stories that children tell themselves, before adults channel their narrative understanding into predictable logical corridors. (For similarly crazy, but brighter-toned animated Eurokiddie fare, check out Belgium’s A Town Called Panic). There’s a narrow window for American kids to enjoy this. With the eyeball-on-a-stalk peering into secret places, it’s too frightening for very young kids, and many older kids will be put off by its anti-Pixar sensibilities, its drab color palette and its overall foreignness. Adults, of course, can enjoy it at any age.

Jirí Barta began making animated films in the 1970s, but Na Pude was only his second feature-length effort (the first was 1986’s Krysar, AKA The Pied Piper of Hamlin, which is currently in our reader-suggested review queue). He had not made a movie for twenty years before this one. Vivian Schilling, who voiced Buttercup, also wrote the English translation, directed the American voice actors, and designed a new title sequence. Schilling was previously best known for writing and starring in the laughable 1990 Joe Estevez sci-fi snoozer Soultaker. Ms. Schilling, consider yourself redeemed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…easily earns a capital-W for weird.”–Matt Pais, Redeye (contemporaneous)

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