Dir: Lino DiSalvo; Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Gabriel Bateman, Jim Gaffigan, Adam Lambert, Meghan Trainor, Daniel Radcliffe. U cert, 99 mins
After The Lego Movie was released in 2014, it’s easy to imagine the jubilant ker-ching of imaginary cash registers ringing out in the boardrooms of toy companies around the planet. Surely if the Danish building-block folk could weaponise decades of ambient consumer goodwill in a blockbuster animation, they could too?
Well, on the evidence of Playmobil: The Movie, no they could not. The Lego Movie worked so well in part because the essence of the product’s eternal appeal – the tension between building by the instruction book and going wackily off-piste – was an intrinsic part of the film’s visual style, core premise and emotional impact.
Since I’m not in marketing, I have no idea what the Playmobil equivalent would be, but apparently neither does this film, which means it feels like exactly what it is: an ugly, interminable, devoid-of-substance advert. Around half an hour into the critics’ preview I felt guilty for bringing along my six and four year old boys, who asked to go to the Lego shop immediately afterwards, possibly as a kind of detox. When we got home I saw their Playmobil police van on the shelf and could barely bring myself to look the little smiling plastic officers in the eye-dot.
There is no obvious reason that Playmobil: The Movie turned out as wretchedly as it did. It was made by the relatively unknown French studio Method Animation, but the creative team has a pedigree: director Lino DiSalvo is a Disney veteran who served as head of animation on Frozen, while two of its three writers, Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, last collaborated on The Princess and the Frog. (Blaise Hemingway is the third.)
But the storytelling shows its laziness almost immediately, when at the end of a live-action prologue the parents of teenage Marla (Anya Taylor-Joy of The Witch) and her 10-year-old brother Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) are handily dispensed with in an off-screen car accident, putting paid to the former’s imminent round-the-world trip.
Years later, during a late-night snoop around a toy fair, the siblings are magically transported inside an enormous Playmobil diorama, and must explore the brand’s various themed ranges (pirates, Romans, westerns, fairy tales, et cetera) in order to find their way back out.
The two are themselves transformed into three-inch plastic figures: Charlie gets to be a heroic, Asterix-strong Viking, while in a stroke of spectacular tone-deafness, Marla becomes a generic mumsy type, who only gets to don a suit of armour at the end.
Note that the gorgeously thumby tactility of The Lego Movie’s character animation is nowhere to be seen here. One brief moment of introductory slapstick aside, which hinges on having legs that, well, don’t, the Playmobil people look and move less like toys than insultingly basic CG models. The backdrops are similarly bland and unenticing, while the plot keeps wandering off down pointless cul-de-sacs, presumably as a way to showcase this or that new play set arriving on shop shelves soon.
Among the supporting cast is a horribly miscast Daniel Radcliffe as a James Bond-like spy called Rex Dasher, who sounds more like the captain of the high school chess team than a secret agent, spoof or otherwise. Also, while I hesitate to use the word “song”, characters occasionally yell incoherently over some terrible music for a while, until the time comes to move on to the next product – sorry, scene.
No child deserves to be subjected to this kind of blaringly witless branding bombardment; as for adults, I felt like I was being beaten around the head with the Argos catalogue.