Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 16

Babes in Toyland (1986)

This probably would have been a good candidate for a “Why Do I Own This?” entry but I plan those months in advance and this was a surprise find. For a brief period in the early nineties, McDonalds would occasionally give away VHS tapes as part of a Christmas promotion. One year, my family happened to be at that particular fast food joint around the holidays. My sister went home with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” a respectable goofball comedy. I got stuck with the 1986 version of “Babes in Toyland.” I watched the tape a lot despite the movie generally being regarded as terrible. While cleaning out a box of old VCR tapes, I found this thing again. Holy fuck. There was no way I wasn’t watching this stupid shit for December.

Lisa, an 11 year old from Cincinnati, usually ends up watching out for her siblings, older and younger. As a blizzard blows in on Christmas Eve, her mom is stuck at a garage. Her older sister Mary is stuck at work, where her sleazy boss harasses her. Because of the weather, she talks Mary and her boyfriend Jack into going home earlier. While driving through the storm, Lisa slips out the back of the truck, slides down a hill, and hits a tree. She awakens in Toyland, a strange world full of living toys and fairy tale creatures. There, she must prevent a scheme by the villain Barnaby from taking over Toyland with his army of monsters.

I’ve never seen any other version of “Babes in Toyland.” Annette Funicello or Laurel and Hardy have not graced my eyes. This is the “Babes in Toyland” I grew up with. It’s a weird ass movie, you guys. Drew Barrymore floats down into Toyland on a plastic sled. Toyland is populated by people dressed as teddy bears, giant mice, owls, or cats. There’s a humanoid Jack-in-the-Box that leaps out repeatedly. The residents drive around town in brightly color little cars that make odd bubble noises as they move. The ending reveals Toyland as being another planet. The weirdest aspect is its villain, Barnaby. He lives in a giant bowling ball atop a hill. He is accompanied by two minions, Mack and Zack, one of whom looks like Nosferatu. Barnaby spies on the good guys with a one-eyed bird creature that can see anything. He keeps an army of bizarre tree monsters, glowing eyes behind gnarled branches, inside his lair. As a kid, you take this stuff at face value. As an adult, you wonder vocally about what the hell you’re watching.

“Babes in Toyland” stars a tweenage Drew Barrymore. Drew was about twelve at the time, which put this right in her drug years. That’s all too obvious. Barrymore stares ahead, vacantly, throughout the film. In a few scenes, you can actually see the coke-sweat on her skin. Drew’s performance is so stilted and tone-deaf, you wonder how she ever survived the eighties to become a star again. “Babes in Toyland” features another future star. Keanu Reeves plays Jack-Be-Nimble. Reeves, a likable thespian of admittedly limited range, plays Jack as a more benign variation of his soon to-be-established Ted persona. When watching the murky VHS, upon seeing Jill Schoelen’s name in the credits, I shouted “Wow, Jill Schoelen is in this movie!” Indeed, she plays Mary-Quite-Contrary, Jack’s love interest. Schoelen’s girl-next-door charm actually makes her a highlight of the film. TV star Richard Mulligan plays Barnaby, his gravelly voice and goth wardrobe making the character even more bizarre. Lastly, Pat Morita – that’s Mr. Miyagi to the rest of you – plays the Toymaker, the lord of Toyland. (That’s Santa Claus to the rest of you.) Morita is probably the weirdest variation on Santa you could imagine. His attempts at a twinkle in his eyes just blend into the surreal of the rest of the flick.

As fucking weird as “Babes in Toyland” is, it’s actually short on unintentional hilarity. It maintains an overly kid-friendly tone throughout, all of the strangeness being softened into a smooth cloud of saccharine mediocrity. The songs – Yes, there are songs – are entirely forgettable. Aside from “Toyland,” taken from the original stage musical, none of them stick in the brain. I think Richard Mulligan sings something about creating a monster-beast? The movie’s overwhelmingly blandness is most apparent in its message. You see, Lisa acts too mature for her age. She needs to lighten up and be a kid. After she embraces her childhood, in a very wooden monologue, it allows her to power the Wooden Soldiers, which drive Barnaby and his monsters out of town. Considering Drew Barrymore’s own childhood was dissipating in a drug-clouded haze at the time, this just makes “Babes in Toyland” even odder.

The version of “Babes in Toyland” I own runs 94 minutes long. According to IMDb, it originally aired as a two-part television event, playing out for two hours and twenty minutes. This is obvious, as there are several jarring jump-cuts in the tape. However, what was cut out couldn’t have been too essential, as the story is mostly unaffected. (A subplot about Santa keeping a glass jug full of evil spirits never really pays off.) If you just want to see a truly bizarre Christmas movie, “Babes in Toyland” certainly fits the bill. It’s clear that Barrymore wasn’t the only person on-set burying their noses in some Christmas snow. As weird and dumb as the movie is, I honestly wish it was more interesting. For most of its run time, it’s just boring. How did I watch this so much as a kid? Kids are dumb. [4/10]

Aqua Teen Hunger Force: T-Shirt of the Living Dead

Speaking of bizarre Christmas entertainment, here’s another typically strange “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” episode! While exploring a museum’s ancient Egypt exhibit, the Aqua Teens come across the t-shirt owned by Osiris, the God of the Dead. (The auto-cassette tour guide flatly explains this made everyone think Osiris was “a dick.”) After hearing that the shirt has the ability to grant wishes, Master Shakes steals it. Back at home, he discovers the garment has no effect when he wears it. When Meatwad wears it, he can summon anything his mind imagines. This includes Santa Claus (despite it being July), a small army of Easter Bunnies, and a giant fire-breathing egg monster.

Okay, so the Christmas connection is admittedly tenuous. On the other hand, Santa Claus’ appearance is a hugely memorable aspect of this episode. He appears in the Hunger Force’s living room, grouchy from being awoken from his slumber. He expounds on his displeasure quite vocally. He curses repeatedly, his swears censored by jingle bells. After attempting to leave, the egg monster sprays him with fire. Now most of Santa’s skin is scorched off, causing him to refer to himself as Horror Claus. The last scene of the episode has Santa and the Aqua Teens flying around on Christmas Eve. The elves have fashioned Santa some new skin out of soccer balls. Meanwhile, Meatwad half-haphazardly grants the wishes of children. (Master Shake, who has been transformed into a half-reindeer creature, is mounted by the other reindeer.)

Even for “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” this is a wilder episode. There are some decent laugh, mostly from Master Shake’s dickish abuse and Meatwad’s slow descent into evil, corrupted by the t-shirt’s absolute power. The appearance of the Easter Bunny’s twin brother, Daryl, also got a laugh out of me. As always, you have to be on the show’s wavelength to enjoy this. But I’d like to think that the appeal of Horror Claus is evergreen and apparent to everyone. [7/10]

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