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The Comfort of Memory

Writing about Popeye earlier this week made me think about another notorious Robin Williams bomb, but this one is more defensible.


Toys is an awful movie.  It's a confusing mess that uses absurdity to teach opaque lessons about nothing.  Its comedic beats come across as disturbing and its sincere beats inspire laughter.  I can find no logical way to defend this movie as a positive experience on its own.

But I have a soft spot for it.  When I think about Toys, my first thought is not the bad monologues or weird predatory relationship Williams's character has with Robin Wright or even the reveal that Joan Cusack is a robot for no goddamn reason.  My immediate reaction is a warm, fuzzy memory of Puzzlemania by Highlights magazine.

When I was a kid, I asked my parents for a subscription to the Highlights Puzzle Club, which meant that each month I got this amazing package in the mail.  It came with a thick Puzzlemania book full of crosswords, brain teasers, mazes, and other fun stuff.  But it also came with a separate pack of puzzle pieces and an ongoing mystery that you'd have to figure out by putting together the puzzle, then searching through the Puzzlemania book for clues.

So you'd get like a one-paragraph prompt that was like, "Cheeky O'Brien, the infamous jewel thief, has just stolen the Hope Diamond!  Use these clues to figure out where he's hiding!" And then you'd find a page number in one puzzle that gave you a prompt to search for a little drawing somewhere else, like a diamond or some footprints, that would give you another puzzle and another page number and so on.

I distinctly remember coming home from school when I was nine years old and I got my first package in the mail.  I was so excited to a) be part of a club, b) get something in the mail, and c) have a fun activity to work on.  So I rushed to the couch and started flipping through my stuff.  And, being a kid who grew up in noise, I needed the TV on to scare away the silence in my house.

So I sat there playing with the puzzle and drawing in my awesome new activity book while Toys played in the background.  It wasn't the first time I'd seen Toys, and it wasn't a movie I especially loved, but it was fine to have on while I figured out where the dastardly Cheeky O'Brien had hidden his loot.  It's one of my best childhood memories.

Toys is so indelibly linked to my joy on that random afternoon that I'm immediately filled with happiness when I think about it.  It's not nostalgia - it's just pure Pavlovian conditioning.  It doesn't matter whether the movie is any good (and it's not).  It was by pure chance that it happened to be on at that time.  But now I consider Toys to be one of my guilty pleasures because whenever I see it, I'm immediately primed to be whisked away on a whimsical adventure of childish innocence.  I don't know how many other people can say the same.  I guess I'm fortunate.

But I can't just write about a sincere and loving story of my childhood, can I?  So now I'm going to suggest a cynical ploy for the studios.  Next time you have a bomb on your hands, here's what you do:

1) Give out free tickets to a bunch of parents and their children.
2) Hand out an amazing new toy to all the kids when they come into the theater.
3) Encourage kids to play with the toy when the movie comes on.
4) Wait twenty years for all those kids to grow up.
5) Release a "Super Bonus Edition" version of the movie on Blu-Ray (or whatever we have in 20 years) at a ridiculously jacked-up price and remove all other editions from the market.
6) Profit.