If “Lost Ollie” were a movie released in theaters roughly a decade ago, rather than a four-part series on Netflix, it may very well have become part of our pop cultural fabric, much like “WALL-E” or “Oops.”
You usually need a full press marketing push to make that happen. But when it comes to streaming, that’s rarely in the cards.
As for the premise, “Toy Story” is the most obvious comparison, in which a child’s toys are anthropomorphized in whimsical and sometimes (to me) irritating ways. Created by Shannon Tindle and directed by Peter Ramsey (adapting William Joyce’s 2016 book “Ollie’s Odyssey”), the series is superbly made, a hybrid of live action (humans and environment) and CGI. (the toys) that give Ollie and others the ability to move and speak and express subtle emotions in ways that are wonderfully vivid and tactile.
Ollie, a felt bunny made from mismatched fabric swatches, has long, floppy ears and buttons instead of blinking eyes. He wakes up in a cardboard box at a thrift store and the woman behind the counter seems friendly as she walks over and pulls him out, “Well, you’re not a pretty boy.”
But Ollie (voiced by Jonathan Groff) is plagued with confusion: “I don’t quite remember how I got to where we are,” he says. She clearly can’t hear a word she says (adults!) and punches him lightly in the stomach. “I think I might have lost my Billy,” she continues. “Maybe you could help me escape so I can find him? Please?” Instead, she sticks a price tag to his ear and sets it on a shelf.
Billy (Kesler Talbot) is the introverted kid who once took Ollie everywhere and is happiest when he’s playing pretend. Mom (Gina Rodriguez) is warm and bright and sparks Billy’s imagination and playfully joins in; Dad (Jake Johnson) is affectionate but more reserved, watching and sighing as his pre-teen son clings to a stuffed animal much longer than most kids his age.
How Ollie and Billy split up, and why, is part of the story.
Ollie’s quest for them to reunite is the other.
He makes that journey with the help of an old carnival clown named Zozo (voiced by Tim Blake Nelson) and a bright pink teddy bear named Rosy (voiced by Mary J. Blige). Both have seen better days. Actually, everyone has. They are worn out, abused and alone in the world, abandoned.
As a child, if you’re lucky, you grow up feeling a certain sense of security about adults who love and care for you, who will always be there. Reality has an ugly way of destabilizing that understanding of the world. The way the humans in the story experience this is also reflected in Ollie’s journey: Billy is his all, and now that the boy is gone, Ollie is lost, he lost Ollie.
Halfway through, we get Zozo’s backstory and these portions are especially rich. But like so many other streaming series, the project suffers from being split into four 40-50 minute episodes. Some stories are just meant to be movies. Filling them up actually decreases their potency.
There are other things that prevent me from embracing this story fully. I am not inclined to indulge in the fantasy that everything that comes into contact with humans will love us so unconditionally. Have you seen the way children treat their toys? We are lucky toys that have not risen up against us!
But the strengths of “Lost Ollie” are many. The way he doesn’t shy away from dark, complicated emotions or slippery notions of trust. The way he doesn’t pander or badmouth his audience. Ollie is genuine, sweet, charming and lovable without being cloying. You are supporting him. He doesn’t know anything about geography or surnames or how to get anywhere. No matter. With the help of Zozo and Rosy, the three slowly review their confused memories and begin a journey, by boat, by train, and on foot, to somehow return to Billy.
The secret lives of toys and the devastating effects of pain. It is a combination that never fails.
“Lost Ollie” — 2.5 stars (of 4)
Where to watch: Netflix
Nina Metz is a critic of the Tribune
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