Apple TV’s The Beanie Bubble is another true-life tale of so-called ‘disrupters’ of industry. It’s been a busy year for these kinds of exposés as features and series. Apple TV’s own We Crashed, starring Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway, dropped last year, while 2023 has (so far) had Air, Blackberry, Tetris, Flamin’ Hot, and now the rise and hard fall of the Beanie Baby craze.
The film stars Zach Galifianakis as Beanie owner Ty Warner and Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Snook, and Geraldine Viswanathan as the three integral women Ty exploited for financial and emotional gain. Tyrants come in as many forms as the Beanies themselves. Ty was a master manipulator who (at first) barely raised his voice and leaned into a ‘nice guy’ persona. Though not quite as impactful or thrilling as the disrupters mentioned above, The Beanie Bubble is a solid “based on true events” flick. It’s colorful and a fun time capsule of 80s and 90s culture.
It’s been said the true face of a sociopath isn’t Jeffrey Dahmer but more than a passing resemblance to the mugs of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Elizabeth Holmes. After all, while Dahmer tragically took the lives of seventeen men, Richard Sacklers’ Perdue Pharma singlehandedly began the opioid crisis. An epidemic that has, to date (since 1999), taken the lives of 760,000. This is to say; there is nothing more dangerous than a corporate bigwig whose only concern is the bottom line: no matter the toll on their employees or customers.
Writer and co-director Kristin Gore zeroes in on such observations at the very start of the film. As narrated by Robbie (Banks), “This isn’t Ty’s story.” The tiny, loosely stuffed miniature stuffed animals may have been Ty’s brainchild, but the actual individuals who created a global phenomenon were three pillars of the company: Robbie, Ty’s partner Shiela (Snooks), and a forward-thinking intern named Maya (Viswanathan). Ty didn’t understand international markets, much less the newly formed internet portals like AOL and eBay. Even Sheila’s daughters named some of the most famous Beanies of all, like Legs the Frog and Squealer the Pig.
Gore and co-director Damian Kulash “stuff” the frame with period-appropriate pastels, wide collars, and campy decor, but we’re never for a moment meant to fall for Ty’s charm. The now legendary freak accident in which hundreds of Beanie Babies were offloaded on a highway serves as the film’s opener. The slo-mo aftermath in which adult men and women brawl over the tiny toys is the right amount of cringe. For a brief moment, the world had Beanie fever not unlike the gold rush, which is a whole other level of strange.
The story smartly switches its POV between the three woman. We’re never inside Ty’s head. When eBay makes Beanie owners rich, and later a middle-class mother creates the “official Beanie Baby” magazine, Ty’s outbursts at any money left on the table could be a stand-in for any supposed genius’ of toys, tech, or pharmaceuticals.
Across the board, the whole cast shines. Galifianakis doesn’t make Ty likable but instead presents him as a try-too-hard man baby. Banks’ role has the most range as she goes from the 80s to the 90s through a multitude of career and life changes. Sarah Snook has a nice turn as a person we trust far more than her iconic role on Succession as Shiv. Geraldine Viswanathan has been a scene-stealer since 2018’s Blockers. Here she’s often the smartest person in the room.
And yet, for all the enjoyment and insight gained over the film’s nearly two-hour run time, a whiff of formula permeates throughout. Though, to be fair, it’s good enough as a docudrama to watch on your couch beside your own favorite Beanie Babies, collectible or not.