The film failed at the box office at the time of its release, despite its impressive cast and lavish filmmaking. Director Barry Levinson was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Director (losing to David Seltzer for Shining Through). The film did, however, receive Oscar nominations for Art Direction (losing to Howards End) and Costume Design (lost to Bram Stoker's Dracula). It was also entered into the 43rd Berlin International Film Festival.
Kenneth Zevo, the owner of the Zevo Toys factory in Moscow, Idaho, is dying. He tells his assistant, Owen Owens, of his desire for the factory to be given to his brother, Lt. Gen. Leland Zevo, instead of his son, Leslie. Even Leland is unsure of this, pointing out how Leslie has been apprenticed at the toy factory most of his life. Kenneth agrees Leslie loves toys and his work, but his childlike demeanor would not help him to be a successful business leader. Kenneth had even hired a young woman named Gwen Tyler to work in the factory, hoping she and Leslie would start a relationship that would help Leslie to mature.
Kenneth passes away and Leland reluctantly takes control of the factory. Leland, who still aspires to meet his father's demands to be a four-star General, allows Leslie and his childlike sister, Alsatia, continue designing new toys. However, Leland's interest is piqued when he hears about corporate secrets being leaked, and he hires his son, Patrick, a soldier with covert military expertise, to manage security. From Patrick, Leland gets the idea of building war toys in the factory, even though Leslie points out Zevo Toys has never made war toys due to Kenneth's dislike of war in general. Meanwhile, Leslie finally notices Gwen, and they start dating.
Leland offers to drop the idea of Zevo Toys making war toys, but asks Leslie if he can partition off a small amount of the factory to develop toys of his own. He asks Leslie to stay out of the area for fear that his toys may not be good enough. Unknown to Leslie, Leland is using the space to develop miniature war machines that can be controlled remotely, aspiring to sell these to the military. However, the military leaders refuse to buy into his plan, and Leland, becoming unhinged by their refusal, moves ahead with his plan independently. He takes over more and more of the factory space and increases security on these areas. When Leslie sees children being led into one of Leland's secure areas, he finds a way to sneak into the space. Inside, he discovers Leland training the children to operate the miniature war machines with arcade-like interfaces so the children would not be aware they are actually operating real war equipment. Leslie flees before he is discovered, barely escaping the "Sea Swine" amphibious drone guarding an exit, and makes his way to Gwen's house to reveal what he saw. Leslie is aware that Leland has seen his actions through spy toys monitoring the area, and prepares to defend his parts of the factory, becoming more demented and promoting himself to general of his own army. Patrick learns Leland lied about the death of his mother and quits to warn Leslie.
Leslie, Alsatia, Patrick, Gwen, and Owen go to the factory to fight against Leland, using the Zevo toys against Leland's war machines. Leslie manages to disable Leland's control system for the toys. As Leslie and Patrick confront Leland, Alsatia is attacked by the Sea Swine and is revealed to be a robot, built by Kenneth to be a companion for Leslie after the death of his mother. As Leslie and Patrick tend to Alsatia, Leland tries to escape, but the Sea Swine stops and attacks him.
As Leland is hospitalized, Leslie takes control of the factory and continues his relationship with Gwen, and Alsatia is fully repaired. Owen continues to work at Zevo, and Patrick prepares to leave to take on further missions, but remains with the others long enough to attend a brief memorial to Kenneth.Robin Williams as Leslie Zevo
Michael Gambon as Lt. General Leland Henry Zevo
Jack Warden as Old General Zevo
Joan Cusack as Alsatia Zevo
Robin Wright as Gwen Tyler
LL Cool J as Capt. Patrick Zevo
Donald O'Connor as Kenneth Zevo
Arthur Malet as Owen Owens
Jamie Foxx as Baker
Julio Oscar Mechoso as Cortez
Blake Clark as Hogenstern
Yeardley Smith as Researcher Miss Drum
Wendy Melvoin as Choir Soloist
Debi Mazar as Nurse Debbie
Italian designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti spent over one year designing the film's sumptuous sets, which took over every sound stage at Fox Studios in Los Angeles. René Magritte's art, particularly The Son of Man, is obvious in its influence on the set design, and in part the costume design, of the film. The poster distributed to movie theaters features Williams in a red bowler hat against a blue, cloud-lined background. Golconda is also featured during a sequence where Williams and Cusack's characters perform in a music video sequence rife with surreal imagery, much of it Magritte-inspired. Other influences on the film's design are Italian Futurism, most notably the work of Fortunato Depero, and a cross section of Dadaists and Modernist artists.
The film has often been noted for many of its outdoor scenes, which feature the eerily beautiful Palouse region. All of the outdoor scenes, including the trailer, were filmed on location in southeastern Washington near Rosalia, and north-central Idaho.
A video game based on the film, Toys: Let the Toy Wars Begin!, was released in 1993 for the Super NES and Genesis platforms by Absolute Entertainment. The game is played from an isometric perspective, and involves the player, as Leslie Zevo, attempting to destroy the elephant-head security cameras in the factory, cafeteria, and warehouse levels in order to shut down those defenses. Once the player gets to the Manhattan model, the game switches to a side-scrolling flying shoot-'em-up stage, where the player must fly all the way to the General's control center, shut down the production of the war toys, and save the good name of Zevo Toys.
The film was publicized with a trailer that featured Williams walking through a large undulating field of green grass, breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience. This trailer was parodied on the TV show The Simpsons in the episode "Burns' Heir", substituting Mr. Burns for Williams.
Toys was released in 1,272 venues, earning $4,810,027 and ranking sixth in its opening weekend, second among new releases behind Forever Young. The film would ultimately gross $23,278,931 in North America, making it a commercial failure based on a $50 million budget.
The film received a generally negative reaction from critics. It currently holds a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 24 reviews, with an average of 4/10.
Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times stated that what made the film "that much sadder a failure is that everyone involved must have sincerely felt they were doing the Lord's work, care and concern going hand in hand with an almost total miscalculation of mood. Even Robin Williams, so lively a voice in "Aladdin", is on beatific automatic pilot here, preferring to be warm and cuddly when a little of his energy (paradoxically on splendid display in the film's teaser trailer) is desperately called for. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas seems to have stripped the life from this film as well, leaving a pretty shell, expensive but hollow, in its place." Peter Travers wrote in the Rolling Stone: "To cut Toys a minor break, it is ambitious. It is also a gimmicky, obvious and pious bore, not to mention overproduced and overlong."