Within the first ten minutes of “Playmobil: The Movie,” two kids sing a cute musical number, find out their parents died in a car accident, and after a flash forward of four years, one attempts to run away. If this feels a bit like storytelling whiplash, it’s because it is — and it’s what we’re getting for the rest of the movie.
An uneven story built to sell toy sets with little to no emotional connectivity, overlaid with generic pop music meant to distract from the mess of a narrative, “Playmobil: The Movie” might have been better off going directly to streaming, as it is best watched running in the background of a playdate for pre-schoolers, buried under the noise of kids’ own imaginations but offering the occasional distraction from a total toddler meltdown.
High school graduate Marla (voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy) dreams (and sings) about the adventures she’ll have, grasping her passport she tells her little brother Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) about the far-off lands they will one day explore together — until a knock on the door changes it all. Their parents are dead, immediately making Marla Charlie’s guardian and the head of the household, and ending all her dreams of travel. Four years later, Marla, now twenty-two, works to maintain the home while ten-year-old Charlie yearns to have his thrill-seeking sibling back.
This lack of fun makes him run away to a not-yet-open toy fair with a massive display of Playmobil toys complete with a Roman Colosseum, a Jurrasic-era set, castles, pirate ships and more. A lighthouse toy set illuminates, and Charlie places his viking figure in one of the many toy sets, and he and Marla begin to argue.
They both reach for the viking figure and are magically transported into the display, as toy figures: Marla as a version of herself, and Charlie as the shirtless, bearded, tattooed viking he owns. Charlie soon gets captured by the evil Emperor Maximus (Adam Lambert) who places his prisoners in a gladiator-style battle against a monster. Marla must find Charlie and figure out how to get both of them home before they are stuck as toy figures forever.
There are far too many instances of writers Greg Erb, Jason Oremland, and Blaise Hemingway breaking their own rules of the world they’ve created. Though young kids might not catch these moments (for example, Marla can’t figure out how to walk without the use of knees and yet, a minute later, she’s running), small details like that take older kids (and the grown-ups who brought them to the theater) immediately out of the film.
Far too often it feels like the writing team learned the wrong lessons from the success of films like “The LEGO Movie” or “Trolls” big hits. It’s not enough just to have humor (which, despite having Daniel Radcliffe, Kenan Thompson, and Jim Gaffigan in supporting roles, they don’t quite nail) and a mishmash of odd characters (which just adds to the whiplash here); there also needs to be an actual story with a heart to make this make-believe world not only feel real to the audience but also worth sitting in a theater with antsy children for 110 minutes.
Director Lino DiSalvo, who was the head of animation for “Frozen” and the supervising animator on “Tangled” and “Bolt,” doesn’t seem to display much of what he must have learned as a member of those teams. The animation itself is cute but not groundbreaking, and while there are some moments where the cute is enough to hold someone’s attention for more than a few minutes, the missing heart leaves DiSalvo’s directorial debut feeling lifeless and bland.
During the holiday season, when kids are being aggressively marketed to by every toy company who wants the top spot on Santa’s list, families deserve a movie that isn’t one long toy commercial.