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Toys in the Attic

September 11, 2012
Toys in the Attic

Chances are, unless you are yourself Czech, your only exposure to Czech stop-motion animation is Jan Švankmajer’s 1988 adaptation of <Alice in Wonderland, Něco z Alenky, and even that you’re unlikely to have seen at all in the United States. If you’re among the lucky few to be fascinated by this surrealistic mixture of stop-motion and live-action, you’ll find much to love in Jiří Barta’s darkly whimsical Na půdě aneb Kdo má dneska narozeniny? (In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today?). And, thanks to the efforts of Vivian Schilling, we have a version dubbed in English as Toys in the Attic.

The toys are all vintage offerings, tucked away in an old woman’s attic, where they move and play when nobody is around to see them, though it seems less about hiding and more that they simply move only when they can’t be seen. And with no one around to play with them, they’ve had plenty of time to fall into their own routines.

An old suitcase houses — literally — a French lump of clay, Laurent (Marcelo Tubert), a British Teddy bear train conductor (Forest Whitaker), a Spanish knight, Sir Handsome (Cary Elwes), and a delicate doll, Buttercup (Schilling). We watch them prepare for their day: brushing teeth, sharpening a pencil sword, exercising to the “radio” voice of a clockwork mouse, Madame Curie (Joan Cusack). Buttercup bakes a cake, and they decide whose birthday it is by the roll of a die. They head out into the wider attic to their daily play, joined by all the other toys, from a pig that operates the railroad switch — erasing and redrawing the tracks with chalk — to the monkey doctor that patches up the inflatable dragon Sir Handsome spends his time slaying, to a wedding party of chess pieces.

An interruption by the old woman and her young granddaughter upsets the flow, tracking Laurent away and setting the stage for Buttercup to be captured by the occupants at the other end of the attic: a militarized, totalitarian enclave of insects and malign toys led by a bronze Head (Jiří Lábus, dubbed by Douglas Urbanski) who looks like nothing so much as a caricature of a communist-era strongman and assisted by the sneaky Black Cat (Rico Simonini). Teddy, Sir Handsome, Madame Curie, and all the rest must mount a rescue mission.

The story is simple enough for even young children to follow it, but the action takes many a turn for the surreal, and the dark tones could easily be frightening to the younger end of the usual Disney target audience. On the flip side, a slightly older crowd may find the story itself childish and simplistic. This is not really a sure-fire hit for any broad age group.

The film is wonderful, though, to those willing to appreciate its artistry. The craftsmanship of the figures is superb, and there is no end to the inventiveness on display. Pillow clouds and bedsheet torrents provide a sudden deluge, followed by a feathery snow; Madame Curie repurposes an old canister vacuum cleaner as an airplane; a pocket watch becomes, well, something else entirely I can’t quite explain.

Toys in the Attic may not be the next sleeper hit among kids’ movies, but it’s just the sort of beautifully, weirdly fantastic bit of esoterica that all devotees of the unusual will treasure. All, that is, except the sort of smug hipster who insists on only watching it in the original Czech.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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