The Beanie Bubble Is a Cuddly, Collectable American Dream Gone Wrong

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The Beanie Bubble Is a Cuddly, Collectable American Dream Gone Wrong

I was no longer a child when Beanie Babies, those tiny, adorable stuffed animals with the heart-shaped tags, peaked in popularity in the 1990s. But that didn’t stop me from buying the purple bear named after Princess Diana. I had totally forgotten about it until a few years ago, when my mom found it while cleaning out my old room. I don’t remember why I bought it. I don’t think it was because I believed I would make a profit. But I definitely bought into the idea that it would become sort of collector’s item. Bizarrely, there are a plethora of Princess Diana Beanie Babies currently listed on eBay, with prices ranging from 99 cents to $900,000 (yes, you read that right). That the range is so hilariously vast epitomizes the Beanie Babies craze and those who still cling to the hope that it will one day return. 

Of course since 1999, when the Beanie Babies market crashed spectacularly, many fads have come along to replace them. Squishmallows were so popular last year that my local toy store would dramatically announce their current inventory on Instagram, then even more dramatically say you were limited to purchasing only two. Now that same store has the same Squishmallows on a 50% Off shelf. Kids still have bedrooms filled with the latest thing, be it Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty or Beanie Boos (a close cousin of the Beanie Baby).

What made the Beanie Babies boom different, of course, is that people made money, lots of it, off of purchasing a Beanie Baby for its retail price (around $5) and reselling it for 10, 20, 100 times that amount. But only a few were so lucky. Most so-called investors have nothing but a plastic storage bin full of Beanie Babies for their troubles. They were the stuffed animal version of cryptocurrency. 

The Beanie Bubble, adapted by Kristen Gore from Zac Bissonnette’s 2015 book The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute, doesn’t really totally explain what caused grown adults to think stuffed animals were a sound financial investment. Instead the movie focuses on Ty Warner (Zach Galifianakis), who started the eponymous Ty, Inc. and the three women who were instrumental to the company’s success: Robbie Jones (Elizabeth Banks), his neighbor who helped him launch his toy company, Sheila Harper (Sarah Snook), his girlfriend whose daughters gave him the idea of making stuffed animals small enough to fit in a backpack, and Maya Kumar (Geraldine Viswanathan), the college student who harnessed the burgeoning internet and online secondary markets to launch the Beanie Babies craze. “This story is not about him. It’s about us,” Robbie says.

The beginning of The Beanie Bubble tells us “There are parts of the truth you just can’t make up. The rest, we did.” That’s where the letdown comes in. Galifianakis’ plastic surgery loving, chocolate milk drinking, emotionally immature Ty is the only real character in the movie. The rest are loosely based on real people. The Beanie Bubble builds to a climax with a real kicker of an ending for all three women, but discovering that they weren’t real and that their postscript endings weren’t necessarily accurate was disappointing. 

The Beanie Babies’ success came from the economic lesson everyone learns: Supply and demand. Ty, Inc. limited how many of each Beanie Baby it created, then retired certain designs. When a toy store outside of Chicago created a checklist for collectors to keep track of their purchases, things really took off. “Once you have a checklist, it’s all about what you don’t have,” Maya says. 

The Beanie Bubble also represents a microcosm of corporate greed. While Ty was making billions, Maya was making $12 an hour until Ty benevolently tells her he’s going to bump her salary…to $20 an hour. Ty didn’t want to share credit or his money. It’s not hard to connect the dots between Ty not wanting to pay his fair share and the current WGA and SAG-AFTRA labor strikes. Netflix and their ilk just want to keep getting richer. (Of note, Warner was convicted of tax evasion in 2014.)

But after coming to terms with the poetic license The Beanie Bubble takes with the truth, what’s left is a compelling movie buoyed by four stand-out performances. Galifianakis, who becomes nearly unrecognizable as the movie progresses, is terrific as the creative, quirky egomaniac. Banks, Snook (much more vulnerable here than on Succession) and Viswanathan are equally great. You want to follow these women’s stories and will be rooting for them to succeed. Directors Gore and her husband Damian Kulash, Jr. bounce back and forth from 1983, when Robbie and Ty first meet; to 1993, when Ty meets Sheila and Maya gets a job at Ty, Inc. answering the phones; all the way to the late ‘90s and the Beanie bust. 

The Beanie Bubble makes great use of music, which is no surprise considering Kulash. Jr., who also serves as the film’s co-composer, is the lead singer for OK Go. Needledrops like Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby” serve to accentuate the on-screen action while Bryan Adams’ “All 4 Love” helps bring us right into the decade. The costumes are also fabulous, the highlight being when Robbie and Ty enter a toy trade show resplendent in pink. 

Going into it, I thought The Beanie Bubble might be a farce, its collectors played for laughs. That’s not the case at all. The movie is more nuanced than I anticipated and while it doesn’t completely get into the psychology of why, as Robbie puts it, America lost its mind over Beanie Babies, it is a cuddly, enjoyable and often humorous edition of the American dream gone awry.

Director: Damian Kulash, Jr., Kristin Gore
Writers: Kristin Gore
Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Snook, Geraldine Viswanathan
Release Date: July 21, 2023 (theaters); July 28 (Apple TV+)

Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).

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