One cannot hold it against Kristin Gore and Damian Kulash that their Beanie Babies biopic, appropriately titled The Beanie Bubble, is arriving late in what has suddenly become something of a trend. Just a few months ago, the prospect of a “Michael Jordan movie” being actually about Mike’s Air Jordan sneakers seemed like a bizarre novelty. In (brief) hindsight though, it now seems like the kickoff for a spate of films with their hearts set on streaming. Air, Tetris, BlackBerry, Pinball, and Flamin’ Hot have all attempted to tell stories of American (or Canadian) capitalism gone super-turbo. Some of them are feel-good human interest yarns (or perhaps just commercials) while others are Icarus parables about company executives who flew too close to the sun.
Either way, the best of them (and I’d argue about half are at least pretty good) have something to say beyond eulogizing a consumerist trinket that a few decades later might as well be an artifact to a lost civilization. And therein lies the issue with The Beanie Bubble as it arrives on Apple TV+ this weekend: What does it have to say about the creation of miniature stuffed animals which took over the internet for a few years in the late ‘90s? And perhaps more importantly, what does it have to say beyond those cute googly eyes?
Unfortunately, not a lot. Embracing a seemingly clever nonlinear structure, Gore and Kulash pivot frequently between the creation of Ty Inc. in the 1980s and the rise of Ty’s Beanie Babies during the second half of the 1990s. In both timelines, the one constant besides cuddly toys is Zach Galifianakis as H. Ty Warner, the singularly stunted co-founder of the company and a deceptively nebbish narcissist. Galifianakis’ Ty is a big kid who at the age of 40 is emotionally not yet 14. There’s a certain openness about him that’s disarming, too. He has no problem taking good ideas from the seven-year-old daughter of his girlfriend about how to name or design a Beanie Baby—but he also has no problem taking credit for that seven-year-old’s idea if it becomes a hit.
The structure of the film allows this to unspool across parallel tracks as told from the vantage of the women in his life, which onscreen include his girlfriend and co-founder Robbie (Elizabeth Banks) in the ‘80s, and later his new girlfriend in the ‘90s who already has children of her own, Sheila (Sarah Snook). Also in the ‘90s, and in what might be the most effective narrative strand that deserved more attention, is Maya (Geraldine Viswanathan), Ty Inc.’s teenage gopher who goes on to never receive the credit she deserves for helping pioneer internet marketing via Beanie Babies on eBay.
Each is won over by Ty’s adorkable friendliness, and together they comprise what is actually the same story told three times over, with only the audience (and maybe Ty?) being aware of the cyclical nature of these ultimately parasitic relationships.
It’s an interesting approach, and yet the stop-go editing and narrative divide between the various protagonists never allows any of the leading women (who are apparently composite and fictionalized versions of real people whose names were changed) to ever lead the story. Instead each is hastily sketched in a screenplay by Gore. This choice could have even been disastrous if not for how strongly each role is cast. Snook, who is fresh off Succession, seems to especially take joy from playing a woman who cares about the family in her life, which for her is two young daughters. It’s a compelling turn to see Siobhan Roy now as a woman not bedazzled by the material things in life.
But materials is all this rather shallow film cares about—both in terms of its understuffed Beanie Baby toys (one of Ty Inc.’s admittedly inspired innovations) and all the ‘90s nostalgia overstuffed in the picture’s margins. Now that nostalgia trip movies are at last pulling from the era when I was growing up, I can appreciate a fun needle drop like DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat,” or certainly callbacks to the bizarre couple of years where adults were as excited as my fellow elementary schoolers about collecting Beanies. The movie’s repeated focus on contrasting Ty’s rise and fall with the turbulent presidency of Bill Clinton also raises interesting questions about writer and co-director Gore’s own childhood memories, since her father was Al Gore.
However, the time capsule elements of The Beanie Bubble are all surface level, even the infamous collapse of the titular speculation bubble is treated as little more than a foregone conclusion, with the crash happening off-screen during the requisite montage where brief paragraphs of text tell us what became of the characters. While these women may not care for Ty’s cloying commercialism, in the end, the film basks in a story that’s all about cashing in your proverbial stock at the right time.
The film is thus not really about the beanie bubble, nor is it about the three women who have to split leading the story opposite Galifianakis. In the end, the movie is what it insists it is not; the story of a domineering, egomaniacal man-child who will eventually steamroll everyone in his quest to be the center of attention. In realizing that character, Galifianakis gives one of the best performances in his career, eschewing what audiences might typically expect (including a beard) in favor of underplaying a fascinating asshole. But the movie never measures up to the quality of that performance.
Like the women in Ty’s life, it’s caught in a cycle of exploitation that, from the macro view of the audience’s perspective, is ultimately exhausting instead of illuminating, and is in service of a movie that has little more to offer the audience than to say, “Do you remember Beanie Babies?”
Yes, I do, but this movie gives nothing new to reflect on those cute pieces of kitsch beyond the reminder of their existence. If streaming algorithms are encouraging services to produce movies that allegedly open up products from our youth, this one turned out to be empty.
The Beanie Bubble is streaming now on Apple TV+.