Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Keanu and Drew in Toyland

So, the Disney and Laurel and Hardy versions of Babes in Toyland became popular Christmas time TV fodder, many children being first introduced to the music through these versions being aired on TV. So in 1986, a new made for TV version came out, featuring some rising stars: Drew Barrymore and Keanu Reeves.

This version decided to dispense of most of Victor Herbert's music, retaining only a chorus of "Toyland" (with rewritten lyrics) and using "March of the Toys." At least eight songs were created for the movie by Leslie Bricusse, who most of us know best (despite his host of other credits) as working with Anthony Newley on the score and songs for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

The TV movie debuted with a cut that ran for two hours and twenty minutes. However, this cut is unavailable today. When it was released overseas as a theatrical film, it was trimmed down to 94 minutes, with three of the songs getting cut. This version was released to home video (first VHS, now available digitally through Amazon Instant Video) and is now aired when the film is rerun on television. These three deleted songs that I know exist have been uploaded to YouTube.

The story opens in a wintry Cincinnati, Ohio as young Lisa Piper (Drew Barrymore) sees her sister Mary (Jill Schoelen) off to work. Lisa gets a phone call from her mother (Eileen Brennan) that she's having a little bit of trouble getting home. A blizzard starts picking up and the phone goes out after a power line is broken (logic flaw #1, why did the fallen power line only cut out the phone and not the power?). Lisa runs to her sister's job at a local store, where she finds her sister being harassed by her manager, Barney (Richard Mulligan). Mary quits, and after Lisa uses the intercom to warn customers of the blizzard. Mary gives Lisa her present: a sled. Mary's coworkers Jack (Keanu Reeves) and George (Googy Gress) quit as well, and Jack offers them all a lift home.

As they drive home (logic flaw #2, considering Lisa was able to run over to her sister's job, why is it taking so long for them to get home?), they sing the first song, probably one of the worst in the movie: "C-I-N-C-I-N-N-A-T-I." During this song, Jack dodges obstacles on the road, and at one bad turn, Lisa slides out on her sled and hits a tree.

Lisa then finds herself floating to Toyland on her sled and landing in a giant cake. (It is during this scene that  we hear a voice sing "Toyland, Toyland, every child dreams of Toyland.") She meets Georgie Porgie (Googy Gress, yes, he plays two characters), who tells her that his friend Mary Contrary (Jill Schoelen) is getting married to Barnaby Barnacle (Richard Mulligan, spotting a trend?), despite her being in love with Jack-Be-Nimble (Keanu Reeves), who happens to be Barnaby's nephew.

Barnaby lives in a giant bowling ball with his two assistants Zack and Mack and an evil creature called Troller. Georgie says that he sometimes rolls his ball into the street and knocks people over when he's upset, though this doesn't happen in this cut.

At the wedding (accompanied by the song "May We Wish You The Happiest Marriage"), Lisa ends the ceremony by protesting that Mary doesn't love Barnaby. Barnaby threatens Lisa, but the rest of Toyland hails her as a hero in another song sequence. The only other person in Toyland who disagrees with Lisa's action is Widow Hubbard (Eileen Brennan), who was hoping for some financial security from Mary's marriage.

Meantime, Barnaby tricks everyone in the Toyland cookie factory (which is key to Toyland's economy instead of toys for some reason) while he and Zack and Mack dump the entire stock of finished cookies down a trap door, presumably to feed Barnaby's troll army that he wants to use to take over Toyland with. With only an accusation by Barnaby and Jack admitting that he's the security guard of the cookie factory, Justice Grimm (Walter Buschhoff) has Tom imprisoned, but almost too easily, Mary, Lisa and Georgie break Jack out of jail. (Lisa distracts Justice Grimm while Georgie steals the keys.)

They go to the Toymaster of Toyland (Pat Morita, best known as Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid), who shows them some giant toy soldiers locked away in cabinets and a flask containing the evil of the world that he's been collecting. He wants to collect Barnaby's, believing that there may yet be good in him. However, Barnaby has seen this through Troller's eye.

Jack heads back to the cookie factory to look for clues as to the real reason for the cookies' disappearance, but when he finds the trap door, Zack and Mack send him down it. He winds up in Barnaby's jail, and the villain sings a song called "Monsterpiece," where he reveals he plans to take over Toyland, and "tomorrow, the world!" Shortly, Mary is also captured when she goes to search Barnaby's house.

Going to the Toymaster, Lisa and Georgie appeal for help, but Barnaby, Troller, Zack and Mack arrive and tie the three up in chairs and Barnaby steals the flask of evil. Troller is left to eat the prisoners, but Lisa gets out of her ropes and Troller is blinded and put in a chest. Lisa and Georgie then go to the Forest of Night, where they are also sent to Barnaby's prison.

Barnaby opens the flask to turn Jack, Mary, Georgie and Lisa into trolls, but Lisa finds herself immune, presuming that she's from Cincinnati. Reprising "C-I-N-C-I-N-N-A-T-I," she manages to keep everyone else from turning evil. They return to the Toymaster, who says that the toy soldiers can't defend Toyland because someone doesn't believe in toys, someone who "was never a child." They realize this is Lisa, who has been trying to do "grown up" work and continually claiming that she isn't a child. The Toymaster sings "Through the Eyes of a Child," encouraging Lisa to embrace her childhood. She lets go of her inhibitions, and opens the doors for the toy soldiers just as Barnaby's trolls invade Toyland.

The citizens of Toyland and the soldiers manage to force the trolls and Zack and Mack into the Forest of Night. Barnaby tries to capture Lisa, but is spotted by Mary, and Jack fights Barnaby. The Toymaster banishes Barnaby into the Forest.

With a triumphant reprise of "May We Wish You The Happiest Marriage," Jack and Mary marry, and Lisa gets a ride home from the Toymaster, who turns out to also be Santa Claus, driving his sleigh of wooden reindeer.

Lisa then awakens at home, awakening from her dream, being tended to by her mother, with Mary, Jack and George watching as well. (Logic flaw, why didn't they take her to the hospital?) She tells them about Toyland and how she learned to believe in her childhood. As she hugs her mother, she spots a toy soldier under the tree. It salutes her.

Given how odd the movie was, I find it difficult to believe that it was actually 50 minutes longer. But the three deleted songs, as I mentioned, are on YouTube, proving that cut footage does exist. (The three cut songs—"Jailbreak," a love song between Jack and Mary in prison, and "My Two Worlds"—are very weak and the film is better without them.) Perhaps some logic flaws were remedied in the extra footage, but fifty additional minutes seems as if it would have been too long no matter the case. (This means that the movie filled a three-hour time slot on television. Children would probably be at or past their bedtime when it finished.)

The remaining songs are all right. "Through the Eyes of a Child" is likely the best of the bunch. "May We Wish You The Happiest Marriage" is a rather nice one, and it seems some people actually like "Monsterpiece," though it seems more like Barnaby is just saying the lyrics as the music plays. "C-I-N-C-I-N-N-A-T-I" gets the worst song here as it is infuriatingly catchy. The celebration song after Lisa stops the wedding is just bland.

The plot is, admittedly, better constructed than some other versions of Toyland, though it suffers from several storytelling flaws. The Oz connection arises here as the dream motif from MGM's The Wizard of Oz is clearly borrowed here as the principal people in Toyland are seemingly suggested by the people Lisa knows and has met in Cincinnati, with the exception of the Toymaster. This parallels how Glinda in The Wizard of Oz has no Kansas counterpart. That said, it just doesn't really feel compelling. We rarely get a sense of danger for Toyland or our heroes. (When Lisa does seem to be in the most danger, she's suddenly immune to it.)

The plot has little to do with the original operetta. Barnaby wants to marry Mary, and surprise, of all things, the Toymaker's flask is brought over, though the use is very different. (In the operetta, the flask contained evil spirits that the Toymaker used to bring the toys to life.) That's about all the similarities, though. Instead, it's supposed to be about a girl who felt she needed to grow up before she really did and almost missed out on embracing her childhood. The issue is, this is barely established at the beginning. Yes, we see Lisa acting amazingly mature, but we never get the idea that she's doing this at the cost of her childhood.

It does surprise me, however, that although this version was largely filmed on location outdoors, the Laurel and Hardy film of 1934 was far more successful at selling a fantasy world even though it was filmed on a soundstage. Toyland in this film just looks so ordinary.

So, for retaining only a little of Herbert's music and creating a plot that ultimately didn't work out, this is a Toyland you could pass on, if you wish.
These pictures were acquired from a TV broadcast that cropped the image to a widescreen picture.


ericshanower said...

Jared, you are far too kind to this thing.

Jared said...

I wasn't feeling that negative.

A.P.R. Computers said...

I use to watch this movie all the time when I was a kid. I still find myself singing the Cincinnati song sometimes.
I admit isn't the best movie by far but to some like myself a great childhood memory.