‘BEANIE MANIA’ Review: HBOMax Documentary Captures The Chaos Behind A Collective Craze

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

BEANIE MANIA

Directed by: Yemisi Brookes

Documentarian Yemisi Brookes’ BEANIE MANIA, which looks back on the Beanie Babies craze of the late 90s, has an undeniable hook that’s destined to reach everyone from folks who got swept up in the madness to those who just want to delight in the schadenfreude of it all. The fad’s astronomical rise and subsequent nosedive make for a compelling, sensational story centered on an inexpensively manufactured palm-sized plush, an elusive Willy Wonka-esque entrepreneur, a group of Midwest suburban moms and good old fashioned capitalist greed. Serving as a cautionary tale to collectors and a blueprint for success to innovating industrialists, it not only captures a moment in pop culture’s history, but also provides commentary on the psychology behind the sensation.

Brookes compiles interviews of major players in the collecting game (like the crazed cabal of housewives who kicked off the phenomenon), collaborators, corporate investors, curators, former employees, and detractors. It’s a mix of standard talking head interviews, news footage, magazine clips and photos. But there are no first person interviews from the man who created it all, Ty Warner – and, for a more complete picture, this doc is left aching for this inclusion. As the film notes, he’s notoriously press shy, granting very few publicity opportunities and only those where the brand was the focus. Yet what’s included of the figurehead’s silent looming presence paints him as a cold, cruel corporate mastermind, whose interests are purely self-motivated.

While the documentary’s construction doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, it has a lot of personality that colors it. Title cards featuring recognizable Beanies posed behind interviewees’ names are cute and meaningful, representing which character the subject most relates to. Greater historical context is given that helps key forgetful audiences into the time period. This also bolsters the filmmakers’ connective reflections on what was going on in our culture that made the Beanie Babies business boom and eventually go bust (like the rise of internet and Y2K scare).

It’s filled with outrageous anecdotes that sustain audience interest, from wild personalized stories to corporate shenanigans. One woman bought Beanie Babies for a Marine, who paid her $20k to purchase and personally escort them to Hawaii behind his wife’s back. Another woman was offered $100k for one of her rare Beanies in the toy’s heyday, and she turned it down without any regret. Even an employee at the corporate warehouse was caught shoplifting them in her Double D bra. When it came to brand licensing, they resisted product placement in Steven Spielberg movies and turned away fragrance brands. Their lone deal with McDonald’s – their Teenie Beanies – incited absolute chaos, with shipments given police escorts and consumers purchasing Happy Meals only to throw food away.

However, the documentary is at its most insightful when Brookes explores the female domination of this trend through the originators’ changing roles, shaking up the Rockwellian portrait of domesticity, transforming them into shrewd, pioneering businesswomen. It’s easy to chart their evolution from moms to collectors to armchair publicists to entrepreneurs. Bankruptcy, credit card debt, addiction (the substance abused being of the stuffed animal kind), and guilt are all common threads in their family fabrics.

Though it tends to be a little navel-gazing when dealing with frenzied collectors’ mentalities and the unwanted ripple effect of the bubble bursting, the documentary is a fascinating watch. It’s wild that a product with virtually no marketing and no advertising became one of the biggest toys in the world. And that might be the strongest statement this film makes.

Grade: 3 out of 5

BEANIE MANIA begins streaming on HBOMax on December 23.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.