Dig deep enough through the eBay auction site, and you can still find Beanie Babies listed for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Nobody’s buying them at that price, but it’s a reminder that there was a moment in the not-so-distant past when the cheaply made stuffed animals fetched outrageous sums. The phenomenon, while it lasted, was fueled largely by the illusion of scarcity, as collectors chased what they believed to be limited numbers of the highly coveted critters.
Were they really so rare? “The Beanie Bubble” doesn’t have any particularly interesting insights into the craze, focusing instead on their inventor, disgraced self-made toy mogul Ty Warner, portrayed by Zach Galifianakis in one of the discomfort comedian’s most skin-crawling performances to date. Tonally, the movie walks a tricky line between easy-target satire and female-empowering corporate case study, falling into the overcrowded junk-culture nostalgia-porn category so recently represented by “Tetris,” “Air,” “BlackBerry” and “Flamin’ Hot.”
Because this is 2023 — as opposed to 1983 (when Warner conceived his namesake company, Ty) or 1993 (when Beanie Babies were introduced) — co-directors Kristin Gore and Damian Kulash, Jr. smartly construct the film around three women who were central to the operation. Gore, who based her script on Zac Bissonnette’s book, “The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute,” first introduces Robbie Jones (Elizabeth Banks), a neighbor of Ty’s who’s unhappily married and even more unhappily employed when he enlists her to join him in launching a line of ugly plush Himalayan cats. Banks is a bright, ambitious idea factory in her own right, which makes her smart casting to play the brains of the operation, while Galifianakis embodies her insecure friend/lover/boss as an easily distracted buffoon.
Next up is Maya Kumar (Geraldine Viswanathan), a teenage college student on track for med school who takes a minimum-wage gig at Ty and winds up pioneering the field of online marketing. It’s no coincidence that the beanie bonanza coincided with the mid-’90s adoption of the World Wide Web, as the film shows Maya (based on Lina Trivedi) trying to explain obvious-in-retrospect ideas like chatrooms and corporate websites to her idiot employer as he sits there slurping chocolate milk through a straw.
Third and in many ways most interesting is Sheila Harper (Sarah Snook), a divorced single mom who gives Ty a piece of her mind when he shows up three hours late for their first meeting. It’s a business appointment, not a date, but he has the nerve to ask her out and the charm to win her over, endearing himself to her two daughters, Ava (Madison Johnson) and Maren (Delaney Quinn). Ty sends them a box of his toys, then picks their brains for ideas, which inspire the entire Beanie Baby line (smaller versions of certain animals that kids can fit in their backpacks) and several popular designs.
The movie opens with the amusing disclaimer, “There are parts of the truth you can’t make up. The rest, we did,” so you can never be too sure how much of the film is factual. The real Ty Warner eventually pled guilty to felony tax evasion, although that crime isn’t nearly as interesting as the charges leveled against him here. Repeatedly referring to face-lift operations (which the film makes little effort to depict), Galifianakis interprets the character as a cross between an unctuous narcissist and an overgrown glee club mascot — a broader and more off-putting version of the way Andrew Garfield portrayed Jim Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”
Ty’s not an easy personality to stomach, as the movie pokes fun at his fussy attention to certain details (he insisted that the Himalayan cats in the company’s lobby be brushed and tweezed) while portraying the executive as oblivious, tone deaf and sometimes downright cruel. It’s not a huge surprise that the CEO behind the folksy, heart-shaped tags turns out to be a jerk. More intriguing is the way that he never seems to understand what is making his invention so popular.
Ty keeps stressing the fact that the plastic-pellet-filled critters are “understuffed,” which makes them more posable. (“Understuffed” would be a good word for the movie as well, since it never quite justifies why this story deserves the feature-length treatment.) But the brand’s success was a result of so many other factors — including the red-hot secondary market, where collectors treated Beanies as legitimate investments for a time — nearly all of which he apparently sought to squash. Gore and Kulash open the film with a spectacular semi-trailer crash and wrap with the company’s slow implosion, uncovering a few surprising twists before the toy line eventually goes the way of most bubbles, from tulip fever to Tickle Me Elmo: so much worthless landfill fodder.