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  Babes in Toyland Cincinnati forever!
Year: 1986
Director: Clive Donner
Stars: Drew Barrymore, Keanu Reeves, Jill Schoelen, Richard Mulligan, Eileen Brennan, Pat Morita, Googy Gress, Tony Barton, John Kanarowski, Veronica Loomis, Jean Leroy, Wanda Burke, Ray Samburg, Herbert Heldt, Mona Lee Gross, Elizabeth Schot
Genre: Musical, Comedy, Fantasy, Adventure, TV MovieBuy from Amazon
Rating:  4 (from 1 vote)
Review: Somehow each new version of Victor Herbert’s whimsical operetta seems more twee than the last. Following the 1934 Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy musical comedy (also known as March of the Wooden Soldiers) and the 1961 Disney fantasy, this TV movie was a vehicle for Drew Barrymore, then on the awkward cusp between child stardom and troubled teen, a while before she blossomed into the confident, talented actress-producer we know today (and if you doubt me, watch Grey Gardens (2009) for one).

Barrymore plays Lisa, a youngster supposedly too burdened with cooking and caring for her one-parent family to enjoy childhood. It’s Christmas Eve and Lisa is driving home with her big sister and friends, singing a merry song about the joys of living in Cincinnati (more on that later…), when the car suddenly swerves, slinging her outside where she runs smack into a tree. Funny how kids’ movies always link fantasy journeys with massive head trauma…

Lisa awakens in Toyland, a magical kingdom of nursery rhyme characters and eccentric animal costumes reminiscent of Tales from Beatrix Potter. In the first of several ideas lifted from The Wizard of Oz (1939), each of Lisa’s friends in the “real world” play roles in the unfolding story. Her older sister is Mary Contrary (Jill Schoelen - better known for her Eighties horror roles, including The Stepfather (1987) and The Phantom of the Opera (1989)), a winsome lass in love with handsome hero Jack Be Nimble (Keanu Reeves - bless him), but being pressured into marrying his wicked uncle, Barnaby Barnacle (Richard Mulligan). As co-owner of the Cookie Factory, which rightfully belongs to Jack, Barnaby is wealthy enough to support her mother Widow Hubbard (Eileen Brennan, from Private Benjamin (1980)) and multitude of foster siblings.

He also lives with his gang of hideous trolls inside a giant bowling ball, which he uses to knock down houses and run people over whenever he gets mad. In short, he’s hardly the perfect catch and obviously pales beside the artist soon to be known as Ted Theodore Logan…

When Lisa talks Mary out of throwing her life away, Barnaby swears revenge and frames poor Jack for - now don’t groan - “grand cookie larceny.” His evil ambitions don’t end there, for Barnaby manages to swipe a bottle containing “all the evil in the world” which he plans to unleash and conquer all of Toyland. Bwah-ha-ha! Plucky little Lisa seeks help from the Toymaster (Pat Morita - fresh off his “wax on, wax off” antics in The Karate Kid (1984)), who to his credit has some pretty nifty-looking handmade toys around his workshop. His pride and joy is an army of life-sized wooden soldiers who need the belief of an innocent child to help save Toyland…

Given this is a children’s movie and a Christmas one at that, saccharine touches are perhaps unavoidable. However, the third Babes in Toyland trades magic and whimsy for spray-on glitter and artificial sweetener, looking like an Osmond family variety skit staged at a third-rate amusement park. A kids’ movie made by people with a patronising idea of what makes a good one. Toyland is very much like a giant amusement park where the sun shines all day, characters race around in little novelty cars, and everything centres around the cookie factory. The costumes and production design are not without their charms, but this is the least cinematic-looking adaptation of the story.

Behind the camera was Clive Donner, best known for swinging sixties sex comedy What’s New, Pussycat? (1965), then at the tail end of a string of made-for-TV fantasies distinguished by some very peculiar sub-plots. In Merlin and the Sword (1982) a strange message about insurance coverage intermingles with pantomime-level Arthurian romance. Here, the script is bizarrely preoccupied with extolling the virtues of Cincinnati every few minutes, as Drew reels off a list of fun facts and of course bursts into that song. As well as telling everyone Cincinnati is one heck of a place to live, the song even wards off an evil spell! That’s the power of show tunes, baby! The music, composed by veteran Leslie Bricusse, of Goldfinger (1964) fame, is unworthy of his talent. Sickly sentimental in a manner akin to being force-fed treacle with those ever-present Eighties synthesizers.

Victor Herbert’s original operetta works as a mild allegory on how blissful complacence led to the rise of fascism across Europe. Traces of that message survive in this version, though very faint. The story’s primary concern is how life has made Lisa grow up too fast, to the point where she doesn’t believe in toys. Except, we see no evidence to suggest Lisa is jaded or anything other than an idealistic child. And she’s interacting with talking toys long before the climax. In spite of these faults, the film has its defenders, not least those who caught the original 140 minute version (before it was trimmed down to a more sensible length) at a young age. One should never underestimate the allure of childhood junk food and if the film is far from satisfying there are moments that raise an (admittedly guarded) smile: cool looking costumes (e.g. the pirate cat and a frog in a Sherlock Holmes outfit who sadly contribute nothing to the story); the climactic chase featuring the whole cast racing dune buggies with Drew unable to contain her obvious glee; and the spectacle of Keanu Reeves belting the shit out of lovable sitcom star Richard Mulligan.

Incidentally, the film is a perfect illustration of “Keanu-ness”, namely his unique ability to fuse the amateurish, the inept and the enthusiastic into something inexplicably compelling and likeable. How does he do it?

Click here for the trailer

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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