Toys – Grant Munro (NFB) – experimental film
mattby Matt Joyce

On the surface, the short film, Toys (1966) by Grant Munro, can be seen as an anti-war film. A message about the effects war toys have on children, it reveals how their glamorization has noticeable repercussions, potentially furthering desensitization to violence. Though this is not the sole message, the film’s derived authenticity comes from its use of dualities. Through the cinematic use of pixilation, realist film form and chosen composition, the film dissolves the structures that separate common binary oppositions. These formal elements, combined with the humanist relation between child and toy, attempt to merge the dichotomies that society understands and perceives as being either fantasy or reality, probable or improbable connections.

The film begins by situating the child in the domain of fantasy – a toy store – a place filled with imagination, where the displays of possibility captivate the mind. The camera portrays faces of excitement and wonder as these children mentally debate their favourite figure. They stand, nose against the glass, ‘window shopping’. This divider intensifies the eagerness the children have to express themselves through the use of a material object, injecting themselves into their desired representative. Yet it also establishes the separation between child and object. It displays this binary opposition, not just of real versus fantasy but also of individual versus Other. The emphasis is on the innocent, pure individuality of each child, the glass acting as a blank slate for their responses. There is a sub-textual quality that marks this as the beginning of the drama. At this moment the child is still completely his own little person. Once the object is obtained, absolute freedom will be given. Impressionable role-playing may now commence.


As the film cuts between the children’s faces and the toys, the relativity and maturity level of the toys increases. The camera visually displays the progression from Barbie dolls to stuffed animals, to clowns, to model airplanes, which then shifts seamlessly over to army men. Each toy possesses a larger degree of real world representation and cultural relativity than the last. The linear progression of these toys mirrors the chronological stages of development in a child’s life; the gradual shift in interest, moving away from harmless innocence towards a darker, more compelling fascination with the real. Munro again not only bridges the gap between fantasy and reality at that impressionable age, commenting on the lability of make-believe, he also blurs the lines of appropriate age distinction.

Yet in the film itself, there is no need for the children to be consciously aware of the implications behind their fascinations. The toys themselves take the liberty of presenting it for them. As the film progresses, the toys notice the gazing children and begin to play to them, coming to life through the stylistic technique of pixilation, staging a depiction of all the different aspects of military warfare. The camera pans behind the crouching soldiers as bombs explode, grenades soar and tanks move in; the mise-en-scene displays both the living and the dead, the victorious and the defeated. The lighting dims, it begins to snow, things turn cold. A terminator-eye spotlight shines towards the center of the frame, confronting the sight of one of the older boys, almost to say, “Are you sure this is what you really want?”. The camera tracks the lifeless battlefield, acting almost like a scope, as the remaining soldiers are quickly spotted and killed.

Pixilation then becomes the film’s most vivid and effective tool for merging fantasy with reality, portraying a far more graphic depiction than anything that could ever be replicated in a child’s playroom. In this version the toys/soldiers are telling the story that is in their heads to the children, who then absorb and give it back through their changing expressions. At the height of the drama they have completely merged. Munro’s toys act as puppet-masters whose purpose is to present a warning behind what is being represented, saying to the children, “You may not know it yet but when you play like this, what you are playing with is the physical representation of a human life!” Still, frozen frames of the children’s faces are displayed on the screen, now expressing a sense of awe and disbelief as the film concludes with these stills playing out in sequence. The last three stills are animated, toy-like representations of three of the children, plastic versions of innocence on the cusp of the dark, challenging the viewer’s notion of human representation by blurring the distinction between child and toy. It is as if the toys are saying, “See, it’s the same thing if I play with you.” The film ends by returning from this pixelated dream state as if nothing ever happened. The kids continue to gaze at Toyland with unconscious rapture; only the audience knows their souls may have been taken.

By contrasting these dualities Munro is able to illuminate the sensitivity of these issues so affectively. He traces the bloodline of influences to its source, commenting on the fragile and impressionable nature of youth by revealing the malleability of a child’s thought patterns. By presenting a kind of “What if …?” story, validating and giving voice to toys, Munro gives the viewer a clearer sense of the relevance of his vision. Do children really understand what they are seeing as they replicate adult behaviour in a ‘play’ arena of unmediated violence? Toys may stand in for the real thing but can a child distinguish at an early age or does his/her sensibility become marked at the deepest level? This film becomes a cinematic wake-up call to the repercussions behind an ignorant freedom to play out certain fantasies of real life events, here, for example, war. The impact is like a fortune-telling ‘reading’ of the potential minefield of maturation in a modern child’s life.

(Visited 47 times, 1 visits today)

Comments closed.