Toys In The Attic, the new film from acclaimed Czech animator Jirí Barta, belongs to a very particular subgenre, best described as “kiddie films that will haunt children for years and have them madly Googling descriptive phrases as adults, trying to prove they weren’t just disturbing dreams.” Though it has superficial plot similarities to Toy Story—playthings come to life when the humans who own them (or in this case, packed them away and forgot them) aren’t looking—Toys In The Attic is its own dark creation, filled with imagery reminiscent of Tim Burton in his prime as well as the odd Cold War metaphor.
The antique toys—a bisque doll (Vivian Schilling), a bear (Forest Whitaker), a wooden marionette (Cary Elwes), and a blob of clay (Marcelo Tubert)—dwell comfortably in an attic that’s only occasionally disturbed by an inhabitant of the house coming in to collect or hang up laundry. Their contented routine is interrupted when what appears to be the bust of some forgotten dictator (Douglas Urbanski) tucked away in another corner of the house with means of surveillance (a creepy eyeball on a tube that’s still not nearly the most ominous thing onscreen) decides to kidnap the doll. Her friends and the rest of their kingdom head off to the Land Of Evil to retrieve her.
Toys In The Attic is mainly done in stop-motion, though it mixes in digital effects and cell animation; after a slow start, it spins out increasingly marvelous, strange visuals. Pillows float out of a chest of drawers to become clouds, a train runs on a track that the station master has to redraw in chalk, a sea of black plastic threatens to drown characters who build themselves a ship to float in it, malicious bugs burrow through the walls of a house constructed inside a suitcase. The analog look and feel of the film adds to its sense of shopworn magic: Its world is made of junk and discards that have formed their own rich, unique universe away from human eyes. It has the closed but high-stakes sensibility of the stories created by a child at play, operating with its own warped but consistent logic and a thorough timelessness. It could itself be a dusty but treasured rediscovered artifact from another era.