Having already mined Transformers, Tetris, and, of course, Barbie, for their cinematic potential, it was only a matter of time before another nostalgic toy company got the Hollywood treatment. Kristin Gore and Damian Kulash, Jr. are the first-time directors (not counting the widely beloved music videos Kulash is known for making with his band, Ok Go) behind The Beanie Bubble, dissecting the rise and fall of the miniature plushies that sparked mass hysteria in the late-’90s. Stuffed animals and rag dolls go back centuries, of course, but the ones created by Ty, Inc. stood out: Beanie Babies were both miniature and deliberately understuffed so that they could fit in child-sized hands and be more easily posed.
Launched in 1993 by Ty Warner (a clean-shaven but nonetheless oily Zach Galifianakis), the company’s popularity and eventual downfall was deeply aided and abetted by the then-nascent Internet. Would cutesy critters like Legs the frog or Jolly the walrus have morphed into a genuine cultural moment if they weren’t ready-made fodder for early chatroom users or the brand new auction site eBay, where limited edition beanies were routinely listed for thousands of dollars? Gore and Kulash certainly position the company as one entry in a long line of Internet crazes, going so far as to compare it to later bubbles like NFTs and crypto.
But the film is primarily concerned with the rags-to-riches-to-ruin arc of Ty himself, and in particular the three women who have the fortune, or misfortune, of falling under his spell. In the ’80s he meets Robbie Jones (Elizabeth Banks), who leaves a blue-collar job and disabled husband to go into business with her strange, charming, and ultimately backstabbing neighbor. Fast forward a decade, and Ty meets Sheila Harper (Sarah Snook), a single mom with young daughters who falls for the mogul against her better judgment. And through it all there is Maya Kumar (Geraldine Viswanathan), Ty’s loyal and eye-poppingly underpaid employee, who shepherds the company through massive growth, only to be offered a pittance after making her boss a millionaire.
The founder of a stuffed animal empire is actually a massive asshole? Shocking, of course. Mister Rogers he’s not, but as an opening disclaimer cheekily states: “There are parts of the truth that you can’t make up. The rest, we did.” That makes for entertaining, if not particularly illuminating, viewing; it’s hard to parse fact, fiction, and poetic license, especially when it comes to Ty’s personal life. In Gore and Kulash’s telling, which is based on Zac Bissonnette’s The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute, Ty is a petty, insecure, and manipulative man-child, incapable of meaningful introspection and obsessed with artifice. Galifianakis plays him to the hilt, whether he’s faux-innocently suggesting that Sheila get a face-lift or dismissing Maya’s breathless excitement about a Beanie Babies website (the company is actually credited with having the first business-to-consumer online presence). The film also boasts a distracting number of time jumps, many extraneous; sometimes wardrobe and music are the only reliable cues to orient viewers. It’s satisfying when the three arcs eventually intersect, but by then Ty is such an established sleazebag that the conceit feels more like narrative lip service than character development.
Throughout, the directors embrace crisp, saturated colors and hyper-glossy cinematography, effectively mirroring the shiny optimism of the company’s heyday, when Ty, Inc. was raking in $200M a month. They also intersperse news footage of the era, showing Black Friday-esque hysteria whenever a new Beanie Baby is released. But all those new releases and partnerships, including a blockbuster deal with Mcdonald’s, ultimately had the perverse effect of oversaturating the market. After the twin crashes of Ty, Inc. and Ty’s personal life, Gore and Kulash note that Robbie, Sheila, and Maya all do well for themselves with their Beanie-related spoils while Ty is convicted of tax evasion — a pleasant #girlboss fairy tale that can’t help but come across more naïve than empowering. Despite its unimpeachable cast, The Beanie Bubble is too aware of its own moral standing to ever find any interesting footing, though it will likely prove an entertaining enough diversion for plenty of viewers as a nostalgia vehicle for simpler, more understuffed times.
DIRECTOR: Kristin Gore & Damian Kulash; CAST: Zach Galifianakis, Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Snook; DISTRIBUTOR: Apple Original Films; IN THEATERS/STREAMING: July 21/July 28; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 31 min.