Passion is etymologically derived from suffering. They’re semantic siblings. Some artists know this.
Beanie Babies may not seem like the ideal way to chronicle the painful evolution of capitalism at the end of the 20th century and dawn of the 21st, and yet The Beanie Bubble makes an extremely strong case for the cute, tiny stuffed animals as ikons for the American Dream. Tracking the socioeconomic changes of the ’80s and ’90s, the rise of the internet, the dawn of globalization, and the burgeoning apathy and nihilism of younger generations, The Beanie Bubble is one of the more insightful films about America to premiere in recent years.
It’s also very funny, and extremely fun. Awash in the pastels and vibrantly diverse colors, The Beanie Bubble follows the mostly true story of Ty Warner (a great Zach Galifianakis) and the creation of Beanie Babies. Beginning in 1983 and jumping back and forth to 2000, the film chronicles Warner’s rise in the industry as supported (and told) by three different women — his original business partner and lover (played by Elizabeth Banks), his eventual fiancée (played by Sarah Snook), and his protégé at the company (played by Geraldine Viswanathan).
The project has an extremely unique pair of directors — Al Gore’s daughter, and the lead singer of the viral rock band OK Go. However, they’re actually perfect for this. Kristin Gore is a great writer who obviously has very personal knowledge of America’s political and economic situation throughout the ’90s, and a passion for exploring the stories of previously marginalized people. Damian Kulash, Gore’s spouse, fronts the can-of-earworms band OK Go, which became known for their ebullient, polychromatic music videos, accruing hundreds of millions of views on YouTube for their unique visual genius.
Together, these two fashion a hopscotch narrative of immense depth, a genuinely funny and aesthetically boisterous allegory for the American Dream and the cyclical nature of economic and patriarchal subjugation. Gore and Kulash spoke with MovieWeb about the film.
OK Go Ahead and Pop That Beanie Bubble
Right off the bat, after some briefly interwoven narration from the three female leads, The Beanie Bubble explodes in a literal burst of color and life. The title sequence is an immaculately designed car crash based on a real event in which a truck carrying boxes of Beanie Babies overturned on the highway during the height of the craze. The catastrophe elapses in slow motion, set to The Cure’s perfect “Plainsong” off their period-appropriate Disintegration album, and it’s at once an aesthetic preview of Kulash’s great visual talent and Gore’s skill at historical-realist allegory.
“That was one of the first scenes we conceived of,” said Gore. “It’s a real incident that happened, and it felt like a perfect metaphor for the entire movie, for everything we’re trying to say with it. And so we talked about it very early on, ‘Let’s do this slow motion sequence,’ and it was always to that Cure song as well, because that was a really important song for the both of us.”
“Sometimes you make me feel like I’m living at the edge of the world,” the song goes. That could be said about Ty Warner, the business mogul who made everyone around him feel special. He brought out the best in them, but then he took it and used it for himself. It’s a perfect song to introduce this great film. “We shot it over three days, and it was the last thing that we shot in the entire movie, on a very hot highway outside of Atlanta with a ton of phantom cameras trying to capture all this beautiful slow motion ballet, so we’re really happy with how it turned out,” said Gore. Kulash added:
It does bear some resemblance to an OK Go video, but there’s something more to it, and more exciting about it in the sense that it was kind of, for me at least, the key that connected this insane, surreal absurdity to all these much more serious themes. Reading the book, we could see that over the course of these two decades, the same cycle kept happening with women coming into and out of this system. The same cycle kept happening with expectations around technology and around sort of status quo and how the system is rigged. And that all of that was living in the context of this joyful, absurd, hilarious, surreal bubble.
“All of that gets condensed down to one scene,” continued Kulash, “a car crash, which should be terrifying and horrible, is actually this gorgeous ballet, but that ballet itself turns into a like a pageant of greed and avarice. And then it just basically felt like a metaphor for the entire film, and that was the link between shooting a three-minute OK Go video and making an entire film that explores those themes.”
Gore and Kulash on the American Bubble
What themes could a Beanie Baby movie possibly explore? You’d be surprised. In many ways, the rise of Beanie Babies and Ty Warner mirrors the political and economic developments of America in the ’80s and ’90s. There are many references to the Clinton and Gore administration throughout the film, with radio and television snippets announcing the administration. It seems almost personal for Gore, even though her script is based off a previously published work of non-fiction, The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute by Zac Bissonnette.
“It became really important to us to add, because it’s the political companion piece of that story,” explained Gore, “but also because they’re very recognizable time touchpoints that we needed, because we wanted to approach the story in this unconventional way and not tell it linearly, but have these three women’s journeys take the same [shape]. We’re moving between them as it jumps around in time, and we needed some sort of flagpole markers. And so that was a very handy one, because it’s something that everyone can kind of remember from the 90s and that whole arc in politics.”
“It turns out that it dovetailed and mirrored perfectly the Beanie Baby arc. It just felt like, that’s too crazy to not include, because so many of the same emotions were there. It was the first time the Boomers were taking over, and the first time that people felt like, ‘Okay, we’re off on this exciting new ride of change,’ and then, ‘Wait a minute, something else is happening,'” added Gore. She continued:
The Beanie Babies for us were really just this colorful backdrop to tell a deeper story about what and who we value in the female relationship to the American Dream, and how we got to where we are now. We wanted to open it up and make it a bigger, more meaningful story that hopefully resonates universally.
“When you talk about the Beanie Baby thing that happened, most people sort of roll their eyes at how ridiculous it could be, that people would make this mistake about value and what means things in the world,” explained Kulash. “But when you look under it, you see that the same exact mistake is happening in each of the people’s lives. And when you look out from it, that moment in American politics was exactly the same bubble of hope and enthusiasm.
And you start to wonder, is democracy a bubble? Like, is the idea of America a bubble? Is the idea of a utopian political system that’s always going towards a more perfect union, is that a bubble? What are we believing in that we shouldn’t be believing in. It’s not just little stuffed animals.
We Can Do This Better
And what of Ty Warner? The infamous Beanie Baby king is often treated as a grandiose metaphor for larger things in The Beanie Bubble. As one of the women in the film says, “The thing about Ty is, he draws you in, wins your trust. When things get bumpy, you just think he’s complicated, a little damaged. You wanna keep believing in him. Until you just can’t anymore.” That sounds like more than a mere man. Is he capitalism? Patriarchy, inequality, idealism, America itself?
“All of the above, I would say,” said Gore.
“I think he’s standing in for the American dream,” added Kulash. “We should be clear that we didn’t research Ty, and these are not the actual women. This is a composite story that we learned from that book, and we’re careful to say in the beginning, we made up a bunch of this, but that’s mostly because we don’t particularly care about these stuffed animals. We don’t particularly care that the first consumer website was created by a 19-year-old. That’s an amazing factoid, but most of these things, it’s the idea that what looks so absurd on the outside, like a mistake none of us could make, is the mistake we’re all making at the same time.”
The character of Ty isn’t a bad guy, and he isn’t a good guy. In the same scene where one person is seeing total optimism and the beginning of her journey, another is seen at the end of hers because she’s become disillusioned with the American dream. And then each person falls into it for the exact same reasons, and each person gets let down in the same way that we all continue to get let down.
“We’ve talked a lot about how there’s this myth of a lone male genius coming up with things. You see it over and over again, benefiting from a system that’s rigged for him and against everyone else. And we wanted to peel back those layers and look at that myth and really show what everyone knows, which is that there’s always so much more to that story. There are always so many more people involved,” added Gore with passion.
We wanted to shed light on those people and really celebrate their stories and their contributions, and sort of kind of talk about how the system can be set up all wrong, and we can do it a better way.
“I’m gonna say one last thing,” interjected Kulash. “This is a rags-to-riches story. It’s just not his rags-to-riches story. We want it to be that these women go on the journey where they get what they want in the end! It just doesn’t happen to be the thing they think they wanted starting out, or that we all think we wanted. He wins all the money. He wins all the credit, but he’s unhappy and alone in his tower. [The women] figured out along the way that this wasn’t worth chasing, and got out on their own accord.”
Opt out, get out on your own accord. You have to wake up from the dream to live your life. Don’t play this game. Change it.
The Beanie Bubble will premiere in select theaters on July 21 and globally on Apple TV+ on July 28, 2023.