It was one of the biggest studio gambles of 1992 – but 20th Century Fox found itself in trouble when it came to promoting the Robin Williams-headlined Toys.

On November 13th 1992 in the US, Walt Disney Pictures released its latest animated film in cinemas. The film was Aladdin, and – appreciating that a Home Alone sequel was competing for the same audience just a couple of weeks later – it proved a huge box office hit. What’s more, a big critical hit too, not least for the extraordinary voice performance of Robin Williams as the Genie. To this day, it’s remembered as one of his most-loved roles, all the more poignant following the loss of him in 2014.

Yet just over a month later, a second Robin Williams film of the season arrived in cinemas. This wasn’t a low profile independent project either. Rather, it was Toys, a $50m bet from 20th Century Fox of which great things were expected.

Understandably so, too. The film was the latest from writer/director Barry Levinson, who was on something of a hot streak. He’d just come off the back of a trio of awards-nominated films. 1988’s Rain Man won Best Picture at the Oscars and earned him a Best Director Academy Award too. 1990’s Avalon earned him another nomination for his screenplay, and 1991’s Bugsy was nominated for several Oscars, Best Picture included.

Crucially, even before that run of three films, Levinson had directed Williams in the film Good Morning, Vietnam. It’s worth acknowledging as well that in the 80s, Levinson also helmed Young Sherlock Holmes, The Natural, Diner and Tin Men. His films were economical, attracted awards, generally did good box office, and thus what Hollywood studio would turn him down?

20th Century Fox certainly didn’t when Levinson did a deal with the studio to make what had been something of a pet project for him.

He’d been working on the film Toys for around a decade before it got the greenlight (with the project set up at Fox for a long time before it agreed to stump up). That’s a long time in gestation, even against the context that he’d come to the film off the back of directing a Warren Beatty movie. Toys would be, though, a prolonged, challenging production. The sets alone would take a year to design and put in place, and every soundstage on the 20th Century Fox would be used for them. But full credit to Levinson: he got the film he envisaged through the studio system.

The film itself tells the story of a kind toymaker, who passes away and leaves his factory to his brother. Said sibling is a general in the army, and the wish is that he looks after the factory until his own son is old enough to take control himself. Robin Williams played the son of the original toymaker, and as the film progressed, his uncle would turn the toy factory into a place that made war-focused toys. And then, less toy-focused war-focused products. Williams’ character has to fight back against that.

This was an ambitious project. Driven by practical outdoor filming, its wonderful production design gave Fox some striking visuals when it came to marketing the film. That, and a big movie star in the shape of Williams, reunited with the man who directed him in his first hit movie, the aforementioned Good Morning, Vietnam. A role that had earned him his first Oscar nomination too.

Some of the ingredients to make this a straightforward-ish film to sell were in place then, topped off by it being from the director of a popular Oscar-winning movie. Furthermore, Williams requested that Disney keep his name out of Aladdin’s marketing campaign, and to restrict the presence of the Genie character in its marketing. The plan being not to over-expose him ready for Toys promotions. Disney reportedly agreed, and then also reportedly reneged on the deal. Williams and Disney would fall out over this, one of the reasons he declined the opportunity to return for the Aladdin straight to video sequel, The Return Of Jafar.

But nonetheless, the plan was still set: sell Toys  film heavily off Williams’ star power, and the outstanding look of the movie. That was the core plan, and a trailer was duly planned with that in mind.

One small problem, though: what to do about the plot?

After all, people tend to want a bit of the story outline in their promos. Yet given how offbeat the narrative of Toys was and is for a major studio movie – and this was surely one of the riskiest of the decade – cutting a trailer together was always going to be tricky. The narrative of the film is quite difficult to get across, and it’s not necessarily the kind of plot that lends itself to popcorn munching anyway.

Fox thus decided that going for telling people what the movie was actually about would only muddy the waters somewhat. Instead, it released a trailer that even at the time felt very much against the grain, leaning on its leading star and his personality. Shattering the fourth wall as it did so…

Note how the trailer has little intention of actually describing what the film is about. The stylish poster was along the same lines, too…

Ahead of release, a more traditional trailer would follow too…

Yet the cumulative effect of a difficult marketing campaign was not a pot of gold. Rather, the film struggled its way to just over $23m at the US box office, opening sixth when it was first released. It didn’t help that this was a movie that really needed critics with it, to give it a fighting chance. But they weren’t impressed. Reviews were unkind, sympathetic to the outstanding production design and boldness of the film, but struggling to warm to the movie. All the while Aladdin was cleaning up at the box office, with Williams’ personality front and centre of its promotion.

Toys would rightly get Oscar nominations for its art direction and costume design, losing both. But to this day, the film’s not had a Blu-ray release, and it feels like a forgotten major studio film. Heck, even the Super Nintendo tie-in game came and went in double quick time. The movie has had kinder words in recent times at least. For instance, this piece at Consequence Of Sounds has gone deeper into the film itself, here. 

For Levinson, he went much smaller for his next film. As Premiere noted in its April 1994 issue, “after Toys, whatever Levinson made next was bound to be subjected to unusual scrutiny”. He opted to make the film Jimmy Hollywood with Christian Slater, shot in 43 days for a price of $16m. It too, though, would slip under the radar.

But in interviews for it, he’d be rightly defensive of Toys. “I look at Toys and think, I did what I was trying to do. When you make a film like that, you know you’re dealing with no presell, no reference points – it’s dangerous”. Even Williams, it was said, knew that the project was a big gamble.

Yet the fact that they took it is quite something. And it’s telling that 28 years on, even the marketing campaign for the movie remains as offbeat and interesting as the film – a film ripe for finally being properly discovered…

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