Review: 'Toyland' Is A Cursory Look At A Billion Dollar Industry

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by Kevin Jagernauth
November 18, 2011 10:06 AM
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It's that time of year again. Parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters are flocking to shopping malls across the nation to pick up presents for loved ones, and no matter who you are, you likely have at least one stop to make at a toy store for somebody in your life. Each year it seems there are more toys to choose from, and given the Christmas holidays are essentially the time of the year that make or break a product, it's lot like a box office opening weekend -- you either go big or go home. It's a tough industry, with big winners, major players and a lot folks struggling to make to their mark and in documentary "Toyland," filmmaker Ken Sons attempts to explain the journey that gets a toy to market.

First off, though, the title and even the opening of the movie, is a bit tease. Though kicking off at the massive annual New York Toy Fair, where inventors and toymakers from around the world assemble each year to hawk their wares, the film doesn't take us to that utopia of trapped childhood. Instead, we head to the workshop of game inventor Tim Walsh where he hopes he has the next big thing. He's working on Crazy Chins a brand he sees stretching across numerous product lines from the internet to a card game, all centered around children painting faces on their chin, creating characters and sharing them with friends and family.

As Walsh continues to refine his product in preparation to pitch it to toy giants Mattel, the film reaches back, giving us the case histories of a handful of toys that changed the face of the industry and a couple of innovators whose ideas reshaped perceived notions of what could be sold to the public. The emerging message -- that painfully goes unacknowledged by Sons -- is that the industry is cutthroat, often leaving bodies stacked at the side of the road. The inventor of Slinky slowly lost the plot and joined a religious cult leaving his wife to run the company. Marvin Glass, the mind behind SIMON, Lite Brite, Mousetrap and other legendary toys regularly stiffed clients and in the case of Operation, took the idea from a student, paid him $500, promised him a job when he graduated, and then backed out of the deal. The couple that named Play-Doh? They too were cut out of any proceeds -- even though the manufacturer was their son-in-law. But Sons, eager to also highlight the serendipity of these creations (the anecdote about Twister is pretty great), shies away from the grimmer aspects of the competitive quest to create the latest and greatest.

And so we get an interesting, though not particulary in-depth look at a lot of the games we played in childhood, and then we return to Walsh, whose pitch at Mattel got turned down, as he continues to hustle his Crazy Chins. But there's a problem that anyone who has even spent five minutes watching "The Apprentice" or "Dragon's Den" will soon see -- it's just not a good idea. Presented as a multi-platform idea, its hard to grasp exactly what Crazy Chins is. Simply a disguise/make-up kit for kids or a Pokemon-level franchise? Walsh seems to be five or ten steps ahead of himself, before even getting the core of his idea down. But because it's just such an obviously convoluted idea, and a niche product to boot, there is no real dramatic tension about whether or not he'll sell it to somebody to get it into stores.

Towards the end of the film, we suddenly fast-forward two and half a years to see what happened to Walsh and his Crazy Chins, and while we won't spoil it, Sons again misses a big opportunity, failing to engage Walsh about what he learned over that stretch of time. This is the kind of insight that would be fascinating, especially for those of us on the outside, but "Toyland" is in a hurry to wrap up its narrative in an already brisk running time that is just barely over an hour. As an overview of toy inventing and a casual conversation about how some of the most famed toys in history came to pass, "Toyland" is diverting enough to be worth an hour of your time. But for anybody looking to learn about the nitty-gritty details of the industry, how a toy goes from being an idea in a brain to landing on a store shelf, the doc disappoints. Loosely structured and breezily delivered, "Toyland" is a bright shiny package that reveals a lot of stuffing before you get to the goods. [C]

"Toyland" premieres on the Documentary Channel on Sunday, November 20th at 8 PM.

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