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Nathan Weinbender reviews "The Beanie Bubble"


For a brief, shining moment in the mid-’90s, Beanie Babies were like currency. These cute, colorful little creatures—bears and birds and dogs and fish—were manufactured by a company called Ty, Inc. and sold exclusively in mom-and-pop gift shops, and their inherent collectability and limited availability generated a resale market where the rarest Beanies were sold for thousands of dollars. People started raiding stores and hoarding them, under the impression that the appreciating value would eventually pay for their kids’ college.

And as quickly as Beanie mania reached fever pitch, it abruptly ended. Why, exactly, did these little plush dolls stuffed with plastic pellets cause such an uproar? The Beanie Bubble, a new feature that dramatizes the fad, doesn’t really answer that question. Sure, it details how Ty, Inc. came to be, and it practically diagnoses all the personality disorders of the self-mythologized mastermind at its helm. But anyone who wasn’t clued into the actual Beanie craze will still come away from the movie wondering what all the fuss was about.

Maybe there isn’t a real answer, anyway, because this particular trend does, in retrospect, seem especially inexplicable. It began with a man named Ty Warner, played here by Zach Galifianakis, who began his namesake company making plush cats with poseable features. They were moderately successful, but the introduction of the Beanie Baby in 1993 would make him a billionaire before the decade was over.

The Beanie Bubble considers Warner’s ascent through the underappreciated influence of three women in his orbit: his on-again-off-again business/romantic partner Robbie (played by Elizabeth Banks), whom Ty refuses to recognize as a co-founder; his long-term fiancée Sheila (played by Sarah Snook), who keeps getting pushed to the sidelines; and his assistant Maya (played by Geraldine Viswanathan), whose outside-the-box thinking made Ty, Inc. e-commerce pioneers at the dawn of the internet.

The film jumps back and forth in time, seemingly at random, so that Warner’s rise and fall run parallel to one another, interspersed with scenes of his romantic entanglements throughout the years. Maybe this approach was meant to enliven the tired biopic formula, but it just ends up muddying the waters; it’s needless fiddling.

The Beanie Bubble is based on a nonfiction book by Zac Bissonnette, and it changes a lot of names and fudges a lot of facts, no doubt for legal reasons. I don’t expect these kinds of movies to always adhere to the truth, but the artistic liberties here serve up just desserts rather than a heaping helping of ironic bile. The movie ends with “where are they now?” updates about its four central players—telling us, essentially, that Ty ended up alone and mired in lawsuits, while the women portrayed by Banks, Snook and Viswanathan continued on to thriving lives and careers. But that note of triumph is totally false, not just dramatically but journalistically. If you were to believe this movie’s narrative, Warner lost everything to his own out-of-control ego. In reality, he merely shifted his focus to luxury hotels and is still worth billions to this day.

The true story of Ty isn’t one of ambition kneecapped by unchecked greed, but rather ambition succeeding in spite of it. Ty’s distinctive heart-shaped brand tag belied the toxic emotions that roiled within, and yet the film made about it isn’t cynical enough. The saga of the Beanie Baby is such a strange one that it probably deserved a stranger movie.

For Spokane Public Radio, I'm Nathan Weinbender.


Nathan Weinbender is one of the regular co-hosts on Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.