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MMYIF: Babes In Toyland

My Misspent Youth In Films...

Babes In Toyland
Directed by: Clive Donner
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Richard Mulligan, Eileen Brennan
Released: December 19, 1986

A young girl wakes up in the realm of Toyland, where she teams up with her family and friends to overthrow the evil villain, Barnaby.

What I Thought Then

This was a movie my sister always wanted to watch--although I definitely enjoyed it as well. It's mostly individual lines that stick out to me in this: "My jeep has four-wheel drive!"; "Christmas time is snow time, and in no time it will be Christmas again."; "That's the way the cookie factory crumbles--haha, little joke."

What I Think Now

It's not the worst thing I've seen in the last year... but I did watch Cats in the last year. So this was a TV movie based very loosely on a 1903 operetta that keeps none of the original music, plot, characters, or anything but the title as far as I could tell. This version is about how Barnaby Barnacle (Empty Nest's Richard Mulligan) is attempting to overthrow Toyland and use it as a stepping stone towards conquering the entire world and creating a new world without toys and without cookies. And in order to do that he frames his nephew Jack-be-Nimble, played by Keanu Reeves (Oh, hey, Keanu Reeves is in this!), with cookie theft and attempts to wed Jack's beloved Mary Contrary. This whole plan is upended when an eleven-year-old Drew Barrymore named Lisa falls out of a Wizard-Of-Oz-style frame story and into Toyland, where she is befriended by Mary, Jack, and Georgie Porgie, all of whom bear a striking resemblance to people she knows in real-life. They enlist the help of the Toymaster, played by a stunt-cast Pat Morita (Oh, hey, Pat Morita's in this!) to try and figure out what to do about Barnaby. Antics ensue.

This one... is pretty bad, folks. It feels like a movie that was intended to become a holiday staple and just play continuously in the background during family gatherings, quietly accruing ad revenue. The original broadcast was three hours long--cuts without commercials run two hours and twenty minutes, which is entirely too long for a children's movie. And so much of it is just establishing shots of Toyland and reaction shots from people in animal costumes. The home video release was cut down to 94 minutes, and I honestly don't know which version we had. I know we taped it, but I don't know if we taped it off TV or off a rental. The music is immemorable, the acting is shoddy; it's so bad that you can't even really blame the actors. There's at least one clearly flubbed line read that leaves me to wonder if maybe the director just never asked anyone for a second take. Supposedly the actors also sang all their own parts, but the change in voice from speaking to singing--especially for Barrymore--is so pronounced that I have a little trouble believing that.

There's also a veneer of cheapness over the whole thing. It was shot on tape. The Toyland set feels extremely small but is still bustling with extras, which makes it all very claustrophobic. The Toymaster's workshop is clearly a warehouse exterior with the word "Toymaster" spray-painted over the door. A car crash is filmed by pointing the camera away, shaking it and adding a sound effect, and then cutting back to the wreckage. The finale, a war between toy soldiers and evil trolls, is shot entirely in close-ups to try and hide just how few of each costume they actually had. Most of the villain costumes look ridiculous in the light of day. Scratch that--most of the costumes look ridiculous in the light of day. It feels like a Sid & Marty Krofft production, but without all the whackadoo imaginativeness.

It has a few moments that redeem it just a teensy bit. Richard Mulligan and Eileen Brennan are having the time of their lives hamming it up for the camera. They know exactly what kind of movie they're in. It's fun to see Reeves before he was famous, and as for Morita... Well, I've seen exactly two movies with Pat Morita that weren't in the Karate Kid franchise, and this is the one I'm willing to admit to. So... do with that what you will. Even at eleven, Barrymore is a charismatic screen presence, and there are a few heartfelt moments that land. Jack and Mary's affection for each other feels genuine--except during the bizarrely choreographed prison dance sequence. My god, those musical numbers. Every time one would start I'd ask myself if this was really happening. The opening twenty minutes, which is all frame story, is a little nonsensical, but includes a little bit of witty banter, again, largely from Mulligan and Brennan.

But on the whole it doesn't work, and the more you think about it the less it works. It's a Christmas movie that takes place in a bright sunny city where it's always daytime--which also makes it very difficult to track events, which is important since there's a ticking clock element to the barely-there plot. There's some Christmas stuff in the frame story, but there's a blizzard going on, so it's not exactly romanticizing snowfall on the pines. In fact, the inciting incident of the frame story is that Lisa is at home when she learns that there's a blizzard coming in and then the power and telephones go out. So she walks to the store where her sister works to tell her to come home. And then Lisa and her sister--who both went to the store on foot--now need to get a ride back home, even though it's not like it's any colder! This is a plot necessity though, so that way there can be a minor accident in which Lisa falls out of the jeep and accidentally sleds down a hill into a tree so she can fever-dream Toyland while she slowly dies of exposure. Don't worry, though, she wakes up in the real world, safe at home. Or so we think. At the very end, a toy soldier gives her a salute, so maybe she doesn't wake up after all. Maybe this is Jacob's Ladder for the holidays!

Recommendation?

Heavens, no. Although, I have a weird suspicion that this would play out interestingly if you were, like, really high. If anyone wants to try that and report back, please do. You can find the movie in its entirety on YouTube.

Tune in next week for a couple of bizarre shopping experiences...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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