Normally, 2-inch tall, plastic, claw-handed figures would be found in kids’ hands, their fingers curled up around them as they dream up their next story; displayed in various themed play sets; or stored inside toy boxes worldwide. This year, they’re taking on the big screen.
Playmobil: The Movie, produced by On Animation Studios and the beginning of a trilogy planned for the iconic brand, is set to debut in theaters in the U.S. on Dec. 6. This cinematic experience — filled with original songs, an all-star cast, action-packed moments, and lots of jokes — furthers Playmobil’s expansion into animated entertainment.
In this action-adventure movie, Playmobil toys are at the center of a crisis in which citizens from different lands vanish into thin air. Secret agent Rex Dasher (Daniel Radcliffe) partners with smooth-talking food truck driver Del (Jim Gaffigan) and Marla (Anya Taylor-Joy), a smart, savvy civilian with her own secret agenda, to rescue these citizens. It turns out that Marla’s younger brother Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) was one of the Playmobil figures to unexpectedly disappear. It’s up to his older sister to bring him home, as the trio goes on a journey across new Playmobil worlds to gather clues for their rescue mission.
“One of the big ideas in this is, … wouldn’t it be fun if you literally turned into your childhood toy? In order for you to get back through the portal, you had to think like you did when you were a child,” says Lino DiSalvo, producer and director at On Animation Studios. “Everyone can relate to that. Let’s not do just some kind of cross-dissolve, like watching a kid play with a toy and then cross-dissolving to animation. Let’s literally do Tom Hanks in Big. Let’s literally have this magical event happen, and let’s turn these characters into toys and see what happens. Everyone loved the idea because they haven’t seen that before.”
DiSalvo, formerly at Disney and head of animation for Frozen, made his directorial debut with Playmobil: The Movie. Naturally, bringing an existing property to life is difficult in itself, but the real challenge was in approaching the movie differently from other films, such as The LEGO Movie. While LEGO products are based on construction, Playmobil focuses more on a role-playing and storytelling experience.
“Part of why I love my job is doing research, and one of the things I found was when you buy a Playmobil box, you’re basically buying a genre, and the really cool thing as well is that they don’t tell you who the hero in the box is,” DiSalvo says. “… I think the reason why my children love these toys is they roleplay with [them], and they make different people the hero. That’s a cool, genuine thing, and there’s a truth in that toy. I tried to make the movie reflect that: where a girl needs to go and become the hero that she used to be.”
And the audience goes on that journey. Viewers will be transported into a number of magical Playmobil toy lands, such as Rattler’s Gulch, Fairytale Land, Constantinopolis, and Western World. This genre-jumping style ended up being the comedic template for the movie, with caricatured tropes for those genres. So, Radcliffe’s Rex Dasher acts very much like Roger Moore from the James Bond films, and the way the characters behave and the spontaneity of a musical number are undeniably at the root of Fairytale Land.
To represent these genres accurately, DiSalvo and his team unboxed — literally — every Playmobil toy ever made. The company’s headquarters in Germany sent two pallets’ worth of toys (that’s approximately enough toys to stand twice as tall as the Hollywood Sign) to Los Angeles, which served as an inspiration to many of the characters in the movie. The toys, such as a food truck and a figure wearing a Hawaiian shirt, sparked ideas, like the protagonist teaming up with Del because nobody knows routes better than a food truck guy.
Also, as part of his research, DiSalvo met with more than 200 Playmobil fans worldwide to get their take on how this toy brand is different from others. “There were some Playmobil fans that literally got emotional telling me about how they used to play with their parents and how it was the first time they started inventing a story,” DiSalvo says. “… I could have made a movie that probably would have checked more boxes in regards to a general audience, but I took this gig to honor the toy and to make the movie for Playmobil fans.”
But one of the ideas DiSalvo is most proud of is that Playmobil: The Movie unapologetically focuses on kids as its audience. The movie embraces the messaging of siblings coming together and the importance of family, but it also avoids cynical themes and rapid-fire, snarky jokes that kids won’t understand.
And, of course, kids can take home the colorful universe from Playmobil: The Movie.
“The designs for each figure are directly based on how they appear in the movie,” says Peter Jaensch, head of development at Playmobil. “The movie’s modern style of animation allows for plenty of entertainment value on screen — for example, by utilizing very individual facial expressions — and at the same time creates a close link to the original toy figures. Of course, we want to attract new audiences and fans as well. At the heart of the story is a journey through different Playmobil-themed worlds. There is a clear message: Playmobil has something for everyone.”
In addition to figure mystery packs, various play sets featuring memorable scenes from the animated film, such as Del’s Food Truck, Emperor Maximus in the Colosseum, and Rex Dasher’s Porche Mission E, will also be available. Kids can act out their favorite scenes from the movie or take the new characters on their own imaginative journeys.
“The key to success has always been good stories,” Jaensch says. “Our play themes offer unique characters, exciting adventures, conflicts, and solutions — always involving values such as friendship, solidarity, tolerance, and courage.”
As for the future of Playmobil content, Playmobil: The Movie is only the beginning. Fans can look out for additional videos on the brand’s YouTube channel and Playmobil’s first major TV series inspired by knights, called Novelmore, which will premiere next fall.
This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Fall 2019 Issue No. 5, click here to read more!