The secret life of toys
If “Lost Ollie” was a movie that hit theaters a decade ago, rather than a four-part series on Netflix, it’s entirely possible that it was part of our pop cultural fabric, like ” WALL-E” or “Up .”
Usually you need a full marketing campaign to make that happen. But when it comes to streaming, that’s rarely in the cards.
In terms of the premise, “Toy Story” is the most obvious simile, in which a child’s toys are anthropomorphized in ways that are both whimsical and sometimes (to me) squeaky. Created by Shannon Tindle and directed by Peter Ramsey (adapting William Joyce’s 2016 book “Ollie’s Odyssey”), the series is beautifully made, a hybrid of live-action (humans and environment) and generated visual effects. (the toys) that give Ollie and others their ability to move, talk and express subtle emotions in a wonderfully vivid and tactile way.
A felt bunny made from mismatched fabric swatches, Ollie has long floppy ears and blinking eye buttons. He wakes up in a cardboard box at a thrift store and the woman behind the counter seems kindly as she reaches out and pulls him out, “Well, isn’t that a handsome guy.”
But Ollie (voiced by Jonathan Groff) is full of confusion: “I can’t quite remember how I got to where we are,” he says. She clearly can’t hear a word he says (adults!) and gently pushes him in the stomach. “I think maybe I lost my Billy,” he continues. “Perhaps you could help me escape so I can find him?” Please?” Instead, she ties a price tag to her ear and puts it on a shelf.
Billy (Kesler Talbot) is the introverted boy who once carried Ollie around and is happiest when playing pretend. Momma (Gina Rodriguez) is warm and bright and she encourages Billy’s imagination and playfully joins in; Dad (Jake Johnson) is affectionate but more reserved, watching and sighing as his preteen son clings to a stuffed animal far longer than most kids his age.
How Ollie and Billy broke up, and why, is part of the story.
Ollie’s quest for them to be reunited is the other.
He makes this trip with the help of an old carnival clown named Zozo (voiced by Tim Blake Nelson) and a hot pink teddy bear named Rosy (voiced by Mary J. Blige). Both have seen better days. In fact, they all did. They are scraped, beaten and alone in the world—abandoned.
As a child, if you’re lucky, you grow up with a sense of security from adults who love and care for you – that they’ll always be there. Reality has an ugly way of destabilizing this understanding of the world. The way the humans in the story experience this is also reflected in Ollie’s journey: Billy is everything to him, and now that the boy is gone, Ollie is lost – lost Ollie.
Halfway through, we get Zozo’s backstory, and those portions are particularly rich. But like so many other streaming series, the project suffers from being broken up into four episodes of 40 to 50 minutes. Some stories are just meant to be movies. Stuffing them actually decreases their potency.
There are other things that keep me from embracing this story fully. I’m not inclined to get carried away with the fantasy that anything that comes into contact with humans will love us so unconditionally. Have you seen the way children treat their toys? We’re lucky the toys didn’t stand against us!
But the strengths of “Lost Ollie” are many. The way he doesn’t shy away from dark, complicated emotions or slippery notions of trust. The way he doesn’t flatter or speak to his audience. Ollie is genuine and sweet and charming and lovable without being cloying. You are rooting for him. He doesn’t know anything about geography or surnames or how to get anywhere. No matter. With the help of Zozo and Rosy, the three slowly explore his hazy memories and begin a trek – by boat, train, and on foot – to get back, one way or another, to Billy.
The Secret Life of Toys and the Heartbreaking Effects of Grief. It’s a combination that never fails.
“Lost Ollie” – 2.5 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: netflix
Nina Metz is a critic at the Tribune
What to eat. What to watch. What you need to live your best life…now. Sign up for our Eat. Look. Do. newsletter here.