THE STORY – Why did the world suddenly treat stuffed animals like gold? Ty Warner was a frustrated toy salesman until his collaboration with three women grew his masterstroke of an idea into the biggest toy craze in history.
THE CAST – Elizabeth Banks, Zach Galifianakis, Geraldine Viswanathan & Sarah Snook
THE TEAM – Kristin Gore (Director/Writer), Damian Kulash (Director) & Zac Bissonnette (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 110 Minutes
This year is all about the products. Everything from the beginnings of Air Jordan (“Air“) to the rise and fall of BlackBerry phones (“BlackBerry“) to even the world’s most iconic and controversial doll (“Barbie“) is getting the Hollywood treatment. These films and others (like “Tetris“) want to tell the sensational and unbelievable true stories behind the gadgets and gizmos we know and love in an attempt to get us to think differently about these products and what it took to get them in our hands. And now a new player has entered the chat: “The Beanie Bubble.”
Beanie Babies, a line of colorful stuffed toy animals, took over toy stores and people’s homes in the 1990s. They were so popular that you were the odd one out if you didn’t have a massive collection of them in your room for everyone to see. Founder Ty Warner amassed an empire that many only dream of, but as “The Beanie Bubble” suggests, he didn’t do it alone. Kristin Gore and Damian Kulash’s film tells an intriguing and captivating story about three women who inspired much of this worldwide phenomenon but rarely ever received the credit they deserved until now.
How much of the film is true is a bit up in the air – the film begins with a title card that states, “There are parts of the truth you just can’t make up. The rest, we did” – but what can’t be changed is just how popular these stuffed animals were. The film’s opening shows a massive semi-crash on the highway that caused thousands of toys to spill out onto the road. Any sane person would check to see if the truck driver and others were OK, but these people were more invested in getting as many Beanie Babies as possible.
But before the phenomenon took over the United States, there was toy salesman Ty (an unrecognizable Zach Galifianakis) with a dream, and Robbie (Elizabeth Banks), a car mechanic looking for something more in life. The two neighbors were down on their luck in 1983, the former from a loved one passing away and the latter from her crappy job and unhappy home life. But they both believed they had a golden business opportunity with their stuffed cat toys, which were not stuffed entirely, making them even plusher. When these bad boys hit toy conventions, people went wild for them, all thanks to Ty and Robbie’s vivacious selling pitches and style. But in Ty’s eyes, the success was all because of him. As the years went by and the company got even more popular, he’d frequently undermine Robbie’s ideas, especially when expanding the product overseas.
As the film bounces back and forth between the ’80s and ’90s, we see how other women in Ty’s life drew the short end of the stick repeatedly. In 1993, Maya (Geraldine Viswanathan), a college student looking for a temp job, joined the staff as a receptionist, but later showed how skillful she was with marketing ideas and getting people online even more interested in the toys. That same year, Ty met and fell in love with Sheila (Sarah Snook) and her two daughters, who gave the CEO a genius idea to make miniature versions of animals and even named a few. But, just as Robbie discovered years earlier, Maya and Sheila never got the credit or the financial gains, as Ty did despite their contributions.
The strong performances from all four leads make “The Beanie Bubble” stick out from being just another product movie. Audiences are used to seeing Galifianakis deliver loud and hilarious roles, like his breakout in “The Hangover,” but he tones it way down here and becomes quite the despicable human. It’s frightening to see him embody this sinister man, who on the outside looks like he could do no harm, but on the inside only ever cares about money. As a result, it’s a joy to see all three women fight back and get in his face, particularly Banks and Viswanathan, who are not afraid to make him squirm. Viswanathan shines in one scene where she marches into Ty’s office and demands a promotion over a newcomer white guy – something too relatable for women. Snook also has the most emotional and devastating storyline as she devotes years of her and her children’s lives to this man, only for him to turn his back on them when they needed him the most.
While the frequent cuts between the three stories might get tedious for some viewers, the edits do keep the overall story interesting by illustrating where the company began versus where it ended up. And thankfully, each edit also features a title card with the year on it, so those watching will never be too confused about where they are in the story as events are told out of chronological order. Gore and Zac Bissonnette’s screenplay does a great job of playing up the drama, but it’s a shame so much of what we see might be “made up,” as the opening suggests. It ends up taking away from the tense moments between these four when you don’t know if any of what is being discussed actually happened. Did Ty really record Robbie’s conversations? Did Sheila’s daughters basically invent Beanie Babies? This would have been the movie to tell us, but it’s hard to know what you can trust with a disclaimer such as that at the beginning.
Nevertheless, “The Beanie Bubble” is another entertaining and fun addition to all the product movies that have come out this year. With an extremely talented cast and a whole lot of drama (real or not), it’ll make audiences think about how much credit one person got for so many other people’s great ideas. Behind every great man is an even better woman, and if you’re Ty Warner, you have three genius ladies who didn’t get the credit they deserved. But thankfully, they get to take the spotlight in this film.