You'll be wishing for Lego while enduring the plastic horrors of Playmobil: The Movie

You'd rather step on one of these barefoot than watch them in a movie.
You'd rather step on one of these barefoot than watch them in a movie.

We could blame the enormous — and justifiable — success of the Lego flicks for the existence of Playmobil: The Movie, but that would be unfair to all the shameless knockoffs and cinematic coattail riders. Such criminals usually make a nod at attempting to capture some of the magic of whatever box-office smash they're copying. Yet it's plain that no one involved in this cartoon nightmare could be bothered to even blatantly steal any of the delightful wit and keen self-awareness of that other franchise.

This plastic horror is nothing more than an insipid exercise in corporate filmmaking and mercenary marketing, which reads more like an '80s Saturday morning cartoon attempt to sell toys than an actual movie. The movie thinks it has captured the feeling of playing with Playmobil fantasy and historical playsets, mishmashing Vikings and gladiators, dinosaurs and cowboys, etc. But it's so crass and phony that it actually makes me reconsider my love of the toys themselves, which I adored as a kid and still have a soft spot for.

Was I merely a brainwashed little consumer, a blissfully ignorant object of cheap manipulation by a global company shilling bits of colorful polymer? Call me weird, but I don't think a movie about a beloved toy should end up making you feel worse about that toy.

And yet here we are. When two human siblings, 20-something Marla (Anya Taylor-Joy) and tween Charlie (Gabriel Bateman), get sucked into a world of Playmobil realms, they discover 18th-century pirates doing contract work for Roman emperors and fairy godmothers hanging out with robots. But it's all pointlessly random and head-smackingly dumb, even when it sounds on paper like it might be funny: Daniel Radcliffe as the voice of an idiot James Bond knockoff called Rex Dasher, anyone? Embarrassing. Here be dragons... and here's a guy, Del (the voice of Jim Gaffigan), who drives a food truck and sells "enchanted hay"? Sure, what children's movie doesn't call for a major character who's a weed dealer and makes burritos as his side gig?

Bad enough, the crotch-injury "humor" and deeply terrible songs; yes, this is nominally a musical. Worse is the setup for the entire ordeal, which posits Marla as a no-fun curmudgeon whose love of having adventures was squashed merely because the kids' parents were killed in a car crash and now she has been raising her little brother for the past four years instead of traveling the world, like she'd planned. (Charlie gets transformed into an awesome Viking in the Playmobil world. Marla remains stick-in-the-mud pseudo-mom... until running around Plastic World cures her. Ugh.)

I wish I could say that if you squint hard enough, you might see this whole thing as a sort of stress-induced delusion suffered by a young woman with too much responsibility and clearly no help whatsoever. But that's not the case. The Vikings get to sing a song about what a buzzkill Marla is; Del sarcastically scoffs about the possibility of her having a good time. Eventually the fairy godmother (Meghan Trainor) will regale her with a wannabe "showstopper" about how Marla just needs to believe in herself, as if that's been an issue at all. It hasn't.

The animation is weird and inconsistent: A big joke is made out of how Marla, in her Playmobil body, can't walk because she has no knees... and then knees inexplicably appear and she can walk fine. Everyone has elbows, too, which the toy figures also don't have. And everyone is stuck with those clamshell hands, yet are still able to manipulate chopsticks. There's no rhyme or reason to any of it; it's just stuff the movie doesn't want to have to cope with.

The massive collection of narrative clichés that make up this sorry excuse for a movie don't even make sense or have any flow from one to the next. There's not a single thing to like here. It's all joyless, lifeless and aimless. ♦

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Sat., Sept. 25, 7 p.m.
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Maryann Johanson

Maryann Johanson