“Real isn’t how you are made... It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become real,” says the Skin Horse, the oldest, wisest toy in Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit, a children’s book that turned 100 this year.
Stories about toys being real and having feelings are a staple of children’s media, and for good reason. There is a special connection between a child and their favorite toy, and stories like The Velveteen Rabbit, Toy Story, Calvin and Hobbes, Winnie the Pooh, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane all illustrate that bond in different ways.
Netflix’s Lost Ollie is the latest take on this genre. From creator Shannon Tindle, a character designer on Kubo and the Two Strings and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Lost Ollie is a loose adaptation of William Joyce’s children’s book Ollie’s Odyssey. While Lost Ollie touches on familiar beats of toy-focused stories, it also plunges further into some of the darker implications of a world where toys are alive and fleshes out the child’s point of view. By doing so, Lost Ollie reminds us just how evocative that well-worn story can be when given enough care and detail.
[Ed. note: This review contains setup spoilers for Lost Ollie.]
Lost Ollie follows the titular stuffed rabbit (voiced by Jonathan Groff), who awakens in a thrift store with no recollection of how he got there. All Ollie knows is that he needs to get back to Billy (Kesler Talbot), the boy he belongs to. Ollie can only remember a few things about Billy and how he got lost, but he teams up with Zozo (voiced by Tim Blake Nelson), a toy clown who’s also looking for someone he lost. After they escape the shop, they find tiny pink teddy bear Rosy (voiced by Mary J. Blige), who used to be Zozo’s traveling companion. The trio sets off on their quest, as Ollie slowly starts to put together what happened to Billy.
The biggest difference between Lost Ollie and other movies and books centering around toys is that Billy’s story makes up a big part of the narrative as well. From both Ollie’s memories and the scenes happening concurrently from Billy’s point of view, we learn that Billy’s mother (played by Gina Rodriguez, doing a mildly painful Southern accent) has cancer. Sometimes these scenes end up being a little clunky, if only because a starry-eyed dying mother paired with a gruff, serious father (played by Jake Johnson) who can’t emotionally process the oncoming grief is a bit of a cliche at this point.
While the flashback scenes with Billy and his parents go exactly where you think they will — especially after we learn that they don’t have health insurance to cover Momma’s hospital visits — this insight to Billy’s story adds more poignance to the overall show. Ollie needs Billy, the same way that Woody and Buzz need Andy, because Ollie is a toy and his kid gives him purpose. But Billy also needs Ollie, because he is a little boy who needs a comforting friend in this hard time of his life.
One of the most charming parts of Lost Ollie is that the toys can not only communicate with each other, but with kids too. It’s never really explained, but it doesn’t have to be. Children share a special bond with their most beloved toys and Ollie and Billy’s bond is clearly strong. While the idea of talking toys is fantastical, the idea of children talking to their toys isn’t, which makes Lost Ollie feel like it could actually sit alongside our own world. The toys are animated but are rendered in a more realistic style, making them look incredibly tangible, and their movements feel just like how a stuffed animal would move. Juxtaposed with the live-action elements, Lost Ollie becomes a fantastical story that could be real — and certainly, as a little kid, one wants to imagine their lost toys searching high and low for a way home. The flashbacks could do more to explore Ollie and Billy’s connection, especially since the current-timeline scenes mostly deal with Ollie and his two companions on their quest. The scenes where the toys are simply just toys are a different kind of evocative — especially the third episode, which dives deeper into Zozo’s past and what he’s looking for.
In that episode, Lost Ollie goes where Toy Story only hints: What happens when a toy does truly irreparably get destroyed and there is no child there to patch it up? At the end of the fourth Toy Story movie, Woody and Bo Peep have sworn off children and go gallivanting around on their own; that’s just where Lost Ollie starts. Sure, Ollie, Zozo, and Rosy are looking for their specific someones, but Zozo and Rosy have been on their own for a while, living the rough and tough toy life. They don’t have children to love them, nor do they speak of children from their past. They’re what happens to the toys in bins at antique stores, the ones gathering dust on shelves, forgotten in lost and found boxes.
Zozo and Rosy’s backstory gets pretty dark, taking this soft, whimsical story into haunting territory. Similarly, Billy’s story turns from some rosy-colored memories of his family to how they cope with tragedy. By integrating these weightier themes and moments, Lost Ollie harkens back to similarly somber Velveteen Rabbit. There is always something inherently poignant about toy-focused stories; children grow up, toys get lost, life moves on. Lost Ollie doesn’t cushion the blows — and boy, there are some devastating blows. While the first two episodes are sweet and charming, a fun exploration of the world through a toy’s point of view, the last two don’t hold back to diving into the heavier aspects of this setting.
Throughout it all, though, Ollie searches for his boy Billy, because he loves Billy and he knows Billy loves him. Ollie’s quest is simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking. The show might tread on familiar territory in the setup, but by the end it’s so evocative that any overdone tropes feel fresh, like they’ve just hit for the first time. Lost Ollie captures the feeling of confiding in a favorite toy, through the highs and lows of childhood. And just like the Skin Horse told the Velveteen Rabbit, sometimes it does hurt — becoming real, growing up, being loved. But it is worth it, and Lost Ollie manages to show that there is both joy and sorrow in everything.
Lost Ollie is out on Netflix now.