A movie idea can come from a variety of sources. Some are based on books, articles, short stories and, yes, even toys. The only source materials that inspire as much skepticism as toy lines are theme park rides. Still, the world of commerce has given us some offbeat, weird and entertaining guilty pleasures. Just this week sees the release of “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part,” which follows an original film that received stellar box office and great reviews. Later this year, we have two more high profile films that are based on toys themselves – “Toy Story 4” and “Detective Pikachu.” To honor this material world, let’s count down the ten best movies based on toys or containing characters based on previously existing toys.
“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” (2009)
One shouldn’t expect a movie based on a toy line to be high art. Even by those standards, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” barely manages to be the basic definition of a movie. The plot couldn’t be more generic. An elite military team must stop an evil organization and arms dealer through the art of shooting at lots of stuff. The whole macho, gun-heavy brand of G.I. Joe is a tricky fit in our modern world. However, the film earns major entertainment points thanks to the engaging cast. This role solidified Channing Tatum as an action star. Tatum makes the vanilla Duke character a charming lead that is exciting to follow. Add in the always reliable Dennis Quaid as General Hawk and one gets a serviceable action flick that approaches guilty pleasure territory.
“Pokemon: The First Movie” (1998)
As a 90s child, Pokemon represents a formative part of my childhood. As an excitable six year old, I waited in line for over an hour dressed up like Ash Ketchum for the film. For a child, “Pokemon: The First Movie” aka “Mewtwo Strikes Back” did not disappoint. From the perspective of an adult who has seen a movie or two, the film comes off as a mess. With very little character change and a barebones plot, there isn’t much to go back to as an adult. However, the epic battle between Mew and Mewtwo still resonates as a high stakes battle of titans. For as entertaining as the movie was, the short that preceded the film – “Pikachu’s Vacation” – outshines it in almost every way. Pikachu walked so Scrat from “Ice Age” could run. This bodes well for 2019’s “Detective Pikachu,” which hopefully is as delightful as the trailer looks.
When announced, the idea of making a movie out of the crazy-haired troll dolls seemed to signal the death of originality. Sure, the source of the idea may not exactly be Chekov. However, the “Trolls” film possesses a great deal of charm and pizzazz. The Trolls live in harmony in Troll Village, where everyone sings, cooperates and has colorful fun. However, when the troll-eating Bergens invade, the Trolls are forced into the woods. It’s up to the aggressively cheerful Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and aggressively grumpy Branch (Justin Timberlake) to travel back to Troll Village and defeat the Bergens. Plenty of fun musical medleys happen. Christine Baranski plays a villainous Bergen chef who murders trolls. If nothing else, “Trolls” gave us a great opening of an Oscar telecast. As the show starts, Justin Timberlake runs down the aisle singing “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” the film’s infectious Oscar-nominated song.
A lot of goodwill has been (understandably) lost towards Michael Bay’s first “Transformers” film. We’ve seen the terrible sequels, reports of poor treatment of Megan Fox on set and a level of “bro” filmmaking that is hard to reconcile. Despite all of these (very legitimate) critiques, the original “Transformers” possesses a great deal of strong blockbuster filmmaking. An epic battle of good vs. evil hits the Earth as the Autobots and Decepticons fight over an All Spark that wields untold powers. Embroiled in this fight is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a fast-talking teenager who spends most of his days pining after Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox). LaBeouf emerges as a standout star, carrying the film and making it a light, fun piece of summer entertainment. The visual effects throw a lot at the audience, but there’s still a great deal of spectacle to enjoy.
“The LEGO Batman Movie” (2017)
Christopher Nolan created an amazing Batman trilogy that gave superhero movies a new level of artistic credibility. However, it was also time to take the character of Batman down a peg. “The LEGO Batman Movie” takes Batman and places him in the self-referential LEGO world. Batman must deal with the Joker and his own self-isolationism when he accidentally adopts an orphan who dreams of being his sidekick. Will Arnett makes a compelling case for being the best Batman. He pairs well with Michael Cera’s childlike enthusiasm as Dick Grayson (aka Robin). Many loved “Deadpool” because it used R-rated dick jokes to send up the superhero genre. However, while that film shows disdain for the tropes it falls for itself, “The LEGO Batman Movie” understands why people love these movies. It has fun with the world of Batman and also features a great message about letting people into one’s life.
“Mars Attacks” (1996)
“Independence Day” may have broken blockbuster records that year, however, Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks,” based on the trading card series, is the only 1996 alien invasion movie you need. The basic logline is virtually the same. Aliens come to Earth with unbeatable weapons and seek to wipe out humanity. However, the “Mars Attacks” aliens function almost like Gremlins. They’re grotesquely mischievous in an outlandish way that’s pure, vintage Burton. The star-studded cast is also fully game. Jack Nicholson pulls double duty as the President and Art Land, a millionaire cowboy. Annette Bening plays a ditzy waitress. Glenn Close’s first lady gets crushed by Nancy Reagan’s chandelier. Pierce Brosnan is cast as a Professor who knows very little. Tom Jones’ cameo plays a way too crucial part in the movie. It’s an utter mess, but it’s tons of fun.
One of the most welcome surprises this past year was to have another good “Transformers” film, even just tangentially. At its core, the film functions as a star vehicle for the magnanimous talent Hailee Steinfeld. She plays Charlie, a 1987 Santa Cruz teenager struggling to start the next phase of her life as she approaches 18. Charlie wants a car but can’t afford one. In comes Bumblebee, a refugee from his planet, which was raided by Decepticons. Masquerading as a VW bug, Charlie and Bumblebee form a relationship, not unlike the traditional “boy and his dog” type story. Still, Steinfeld sells the relationship and makes the movie both a great time and emotionally resonant tale of growing up. The movie gets bogged down by an incomprehensible CGI-heavy final battle. However, the stuff leading up to it is so fun it doesn’t matter that it ends with a whimper.
What’s better than playing the game Clue? Watching the movie “Clue,” of course. Everyone’s favorite would-be murderers come to life in this hilarious, star-studded cult classic. Tim Curry plays Wadsworth, a butler who lures an absurd collection of strangers to a manor where murder happens all around them. Who is the culprit? Was it sultry madam Ms. Scarlet (Lesley Ann Warren), warmonger Col. Mustard (Martin Mull), devilish widow Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn), shamed psychiatrist Prof. Plum (Christopher Lloyd), corrupt political wife Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan) or the closeted Mr. Green (Michael McKean)? The answer varies by which of the three endings you choose to watch (though Ending C is said to be the definitive version). Whichever way you watch, “Clue” is a wonderfully weird delight.
“The LEGO Movie” (2014)
Marketing for “The LEGO Movie” seemed dubious. The brightly colored, manic LEGO movie seemed like a 90-minute ad for the popular toy company. To much surprise and delight, “The LEGO Movie” emerged as one of the funniest and most inventive movies of the year. The film takes the age-old “chosen one” narrative and turns it on its head. Emmett (Chris Pratt) is a lowly construction worker who becomes mistaken for a “master builder.” This places him in the crossfire between a band of renegade heroes and the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell). Pop culture references fly fast and furious. However, everything is done with this pure, childlike enthusiasm. The movie reaches a new level of significance during a third act twist that only further celebrates the imagination LEGO brings out. The film’s storytelling surprises just as much as it delights.
The “Toy Story” Trilogy (1995 – 2010)
Could there be any other answer? The franchise that started Pixar Animation Studios still stands as one of the best franchises of all time. The original “Toy Story” broke ground with its pioneering work in computer animation. While today the effects look block-y and old fashioned, the story still wows. Woody (Tom Hanks) is used to being Andy’s favorite toy until Andy gets a shiny new Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) for Christmas. A tempestuous friendship is born that tackles issues related to abandonment, sharing the spotlight and discovering one’s purpose.
“Toy Story 2” takes all these issues to new heights when Woody is stolen by a toy collector. The 1999 film proves that a sequel can stand up to the original in terms of quality. It also successfully built out the world of the toys, particularly around new characters. This introduces us to Jessie (Joan Cusack) and gives us one of the saddest musical moments ever put on screen (“When She Loved Me”). Another standout sequence involves Andy’s toys struggling to cross a busy street in order to save Woody. The sequence effortlessly blends humor and tension as the toys cause an epic wreck by hiding under traffic cones.
The franchise completed its hat trick with the tearjerking “Toy Story 3” in 2010. All grown up, Andy prepares to head off to college. Thus, Andy’s Mom drops the toys off at a local daycare. However, the neglected toys realize all is not well in the daycare under the control of Lotso (Ned Beatty), a devious teddy bear. They stage a “Great Escape”-esque plot to return home before Andy leaves for college. The film culminates fifteen-year journey fans have had with these toys. It addresses how the audience has matured and builds to one of the most emotionally affecting third acts in movie history.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for “Toy Story 4,” coming to theaters this summer. Many felt the ending of “Toy Story 3” was a perfect cap to the impeccable franchise. Will the fourth entry hold up against the previous three masterpieces? Only time will tell.