a critiQal film review Babes in Toyland (1986)

Plot: Once a bright and cheerful community, Toyland is in great danger from the terrible Barnaby (Mulligan) and his scary creatures who live in the forest of the night. They are trying to turn Toyland into a world without toys. The town's only hope is Lisa (Barrymore), a girl from Cinncinnati who lands in Toyland on Christmas Eve. But since Lisa is a very grown up little girl and doesn't believe in toys, she's going to need help from the wise but impish Toymaster (Morita), the dashing and gallant Jack Nimble (Reeves), and his sweetheart, Mary Contrary (Schoelen), if she has any hope of saving Toyland.

714 words (Est. Reading Time 3m 34s)
  • ...this early effort from Keanu and Drew plays like a how-to guide of how NOT to do a low-budget TV movie.

We were looking for more films to add to our Christmas Movie Marathon – and put us in the Holiday spirit. We stumbled across an old Keanu Reeves/Drew Barrymore pic titled Babes in Toyland. Since we had never seen it, we decided to give it a try.

So would this old made-for-TV movie with the odd combo of Keanu and Drew be worth our while? Or should we have just skipped it, and kept looking for something else to put us in a Christmas mood?

Keanu appears in Babes in Toyland near the beginning of his career – even before he would gain notoriety for his “Party on, Dude” slacker from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), but viewers can see that character already emerging in Babes in Toyland. While he never quite spews out a line straight from that film (or it’s sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)), the viewer will expect him to. Rather than the calm, cool Neo he would later play in The Matrix (1999), his character is goofy and has the same timbre of voice that he used to a much better extent in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). His role here just seems to be a warm-up, and won’t really hold the viewer’s attention.

Drew Barrymore, on the other hand, already had E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Firestarter (1984) under her belt, so viewers would expect more from her despite her young age. She still has the look of a younger child, but, unfortunately, she can’t quite pull off the wonderment and innocence of youth in the film. A lot of her “awe” moments seem forced and uninspired.

Richard Mulligan, who viewers might remember from the late 80’s/early 90’s sitcom “Empty Nest” (TV) (and little else), takes on the role of bad guy Barnaby. Sadly, he seems quite ill-suited for it. His flustered and irate shopkeeper early on seems more of a fit than the evil Barnaby, who consorts with odd puppet creatures and threatens to take over Toyland. Despite his best attempts, viewers will never really buy him in the role. Without a villainous bad guy viewers can believe in, the viewer will lose interest quickly.

The failure to create a believable villain is only part of why viewers will lose interest quickly. A lot of that interest will wane thanks to the cheesy storyline mixed with some truly silly puppet creatures. The storyline tries to take a cue from Alice in Wonderland (1951), sending a little girl into an alternate reality where she is suddenly the driving force behind change in the new realm. But, while Lewis Carroll was able to make that new reality interesting, creating memorable creatures like the Cheshire Kat and the Mad Hatter along the way, Babes in Toyland produces an alternate reality that is nothing more than a joke.

With teddy bears and other creatures obviously just people in costumes, and puppets that move jerkily from one scene to the next, the viewers will find this new world nothing more than a cheesy, low-budget failure to bring wonderment to a fantasyland filled with fairy tale creatures. While this is a low-budget TV movie, viewers expect a bit more than this. Sadly, they will be disappointed.

Sure, the film isn’t supposed to be serious, but it edges quickly from satire into just bland ridiculousness early on, and never really recovers. Instead of a spoof on films like Alice in Wonderland (1951), viewers find themselves watching a film that just gets progressively worse as time goes by. Sure, there are the occasional laugh at the some of the sequences. But, those laughs come out more as groans as the silliness and bad special effects just continue to grow over time. Even the catchy “Cincinatti” song – a highlight near the beginning of the film – is destroyed later on by a monster-esque version in a scene that should have just been left on the cutting room floor.

If you’re looking for a Holiday movie to put you in the mood for mistletoe, opening presents, and good will towards men, there are quite a few better options than the disappointing Babes in Toyland. If you’re looking for the way not to do a low-budget TV movie, however, this seems right up your alley.

Too bad to even be liked for it’s cheese factor, Babes in Toyland should just be skipped altogether.

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