There is something about product origin stories that have a movie-like facet to them, that appeal to the filmmakers. The year 2023 seems to have taken this appeal to a new level with at least five films about stories behind the corporate brands we know today.
Tetris, directed by Jon S. Baird and based on the origin of the video game Tetris; Ben Affleck’s Air, about the birth of Air Jordans; Matthew Johnson-directed Blackberry about the origin of the first smartphone, and Flamin’ Hot, directed by Eva Longoria, following the story of the inventor of the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Kristin Gore, and Damian Kulash’s The Beanie Bubble is one such origin story with a muddled storyline unsure of where it best fits — as a documentary or a feature film.
Based on the 2015 book The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute by Zac Bissonnette, it follows the life of Ty Warner as he grows his soft toys business of beanies into a billion-dollar industry through collectible editions and a secondary market pushing the internet craze.
The Beanie Bubble (English)
Director: Kristin Gore, Damian Kulash
Cast: Zach Galifianakis, Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Snook, Geraldine Viswanathan
Runtime: 110 minutes
Synopsis: It follows the life of Ty Warner as he grows his soft toys business of beanies into a billion-dollar industry through collectible editions and a secondary market pushing the internet craze.
Ty Warner (Zach Galifianakis) lives the supposed American Dream by building an empire out of nothing. The film begins with Ty losing his father, who also worked at a toy company, and his creepy dissection of soft toys to understand how they are made. From there he gets the idea of producing understuffed Himalayan cats, his first line of products. With the help of Roberta ‘Robbie’ Jones (Elizabeth Banks), he starts selling his I-want-everything-to-be-sparkly toys at toy conventions across America.
He expanded from cats to other animals, and thus his industry started growing. At the outset, the film is about the rise of the beanie babies craze in the 1990s. As it unravels, it becomes more about the three women Robbie, Sheila (Sarah Snook) and Maya Kumar (Geraldine Viswanathan) who had more to do with his company than Ty seemingly did. Like the disclaimer the film opened with, “There are parts of the truth you just can’t make up. The rest, we did,” there are many parts of the film that seemed a little too fictionalized than necessary.
Ty Inc. went on to become the most profitable toy company in the world in ten years. Even though it would become one of the first internet sensations, his market later crashed because of how short-sighted Ty apparently was. That’s when we also realize Ty had a lot of help from mostly women, whom he did not want to credit.
While the film tries to come across as a feminist story, it is anything but. It is established that Ty has screwed over Robbie, Sheila and Maya, but you don’t feel sorry for whatever happened with them. The narration goes back and forth between timelines, and they will eventually overlap, but it is underwhelming. I failed to see why these beanie babies became such a crazy sensation (people spent millions of dollars to have them) because it is not explained why they did well, not in terms of emotions at least.
Galifianakis fits the role of the cocky Ty, but the character of Ty itself is so wearing that no amount of good acting does anything to help. For me, Viswanathan’s Maya stood apart and I found many parallels between her and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan’s Devi Vishwakumar in the Netflix series Never Have I Ever.
With news tapes on TV showing the decline of these toys, and journalists telling you how this was a fad, and there will be many more to come, the soft toys fail to gain sympathy from the viewers.
All said and done, with decent music, and the nostalgic setting of 1990s America (If Bill Clinton’s impeachment tape on TV could be called nostalgic) the film falls short of being sparkly the way Ty wanted. The film settles for being too bright without any real spark.
The Beanie Bubble premiered in select theatres on July 21, and is globally streaming on Apple TV+ from July 28.