The channels of viability between cinema and merchandise have flown freely in either direction for as long as film’s family market has existed. Not until The Lego Movie, however, did the toy to tinseltown transition feel as potently lucrative as the reverse. Both financially and, surprisingly, creatively. Perhaps expectations have risen too high? Despite evident optimism for a franchise future, Playmobil: The Movie arrives with a thud. It has neither the energy nor wit of its micro-brick competitor and, more fundamentally, fails to capture the spirit of its own original success. Save the odd glimmer, there’s precious little imagination here.
In the partial defence of writers Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, a live action opening has promise. In a show of hitherto unseen frothiness, Anya Taylor-Joy plays Marla Brenner, elder sister to Ryan S. Hill’s Charlie (four years later: Gabriel Bateman) and wannabe traveller. She even sings a chirpy song about it. Yes, it’s a musical. Only, then comes a Frozenesque twist. Red and blue flashing lights at the door signal the offscreen deaths of Marla and Charlie’s Mum and Dad, leaving the former in charge. Away go the passport, bonnie disposition and dreams of a happily ever after. Charlie, for what it’s worth, retains his sense of fun, albeit with fractious consequence in the siblings’ relationship. We know all this because everything loses its colour – Marla’s hair included – and no one sings chirpy songs…for a little bit.
Years on, ten year old Charlie ditches grumpy Marla for a night on the town, only to be distracted by a local toy fair. Here, brother and sister will discover a magical portal to the land of trademark vikings, trademark gladiators and trademark cowboys. It’s an animated world, defiant of logic and populated by perky Playmobil people. Whilst an initial gag correctly rolls with the immobility of the round-headed, hook-handed figurines’ limbs, such is quickly forgotten. As is any sense of plasticity. For all intents and purposes, the characters here, forgettable and computerised that they are, can do whatever their animators require of them. And, as it goes, travel wherever sent. From play set to play set, the action zips through every Playmobil entry in the Argos catalogue. Notionally, Maria’s search for Charlie, in the wake of his capture by pirates, drives the narrative but it’s an unconvincing rouse. Here is a production so transparent in motivation that cynicism is scarcely demanded to spot it.
What’s lacking here is invention. If nothing else, at least The Lego Movie encouraged audiences to break the rules and create anew. Playmobil: The Movie runs its course exactly akin to the advertising most commonly found between kids shows on commercial television. Just like said skits, Erb and Oramland’s script instructs tots on how they must play with their sets, which are absolutely available to purchase as seen in the film. Heaven forbid a child should recreate this drivel whilst listening to the film’s inane soundtrack. There, bland songs – save only for a neat tune by a briefly appearing Meghan Trainer – feature verse alone, with barely a whiff of catchy choral strains. Certainly, nowt awesome or gonna get stuck inside your heeaad. Taylor-Joy does bring enthusiasm to her number but Adam Lambert’s villainous offering grates something awful.
Outwit Lambert’s singing, little in the film is so aggressively bad as the likes of, say, The Emoji Movie or Charming. The main crime committed is, instead, that against imagination. The result of three years trial and effort? Bland. Distracting rather than captivating, mechanical in a genre where only novelty will do. By the time Daniel Radcliffe rocks up – in an admittedly fun turn as swathe junior-friendly Kingsman Rex Dasher – to announce that ‘nothing is as it seems’ he’s way too late. By this point in the film, it is already plain to see that everything about this marketing commission is exactly as it seems.