MGM // 1997 // 74 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // February 11th, 2005
"Infants in Exile" would have been more interesting...
Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Instead, they came down with an eviction notice, as their orphanage has decided to ship them off to their horrible relative, the official crooked man / crooked mile-walker himself, Uncle Barnaby. This grizzled old geezer lives in Toyland, though why he would want to is anyone's guess. He hates the place with all the piss and vinegar he has in his rickety old carcass. Upon arrival, J & J are introduced to Toyland's official Wal-Mart-style greeter, Humpty Dumpty, with the voice of a very effeminate Match Game panelist. They also meet Mary (of little lamb, quite contrary, and any other nursery rhyme you care to tag on her fame) and Tom-Tom, the piper's son. They both run the large amusement manufacturing plant in town, and have just received a huge order from Santa for animatronic wooden soldiers.
Now Barnaby, in a very Grinch-ish manner, wants to buy the toy factory and burn it to the ground (kind of like Save the Tiger, except without all the angst and guilt). In order to do that, he must sabotage Mary and Tom's plans. So he brings in a couple of hired goons named Rodrigo and Gonzargo to infiltrate the innocuous industrial plant and mess things up. When they fail, Barnaby ships Jack and Jill off to the land of the Goblins (which looks a lot like where the participants of Fantasia's "Night on Bald Mountain" hang out between hauntings). Naturally, the brats require rescuing. Before you know it, it's an all-out war between the steadfast, death-wielding toy soldiers and the evil minions of Hate from the dark realm, with the fate of the holiday season in their grasp. Whoever wins will have to deal with Santa when he comes calling.
As boring as it is bewildering, this far too loose adaptation of Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough's beloved operetta -- whose devoted defenders must be hiding out somewhere, considering the number of shoddy versions made from this supposed mainstay -- Babes in Toyland is so syrupy and stagnant that it's like catching a whiff of a rotting candy apple near a carnival Port-a-Potty. This kid-vid travesty has none of the wit or imagination one comes to expect from the animation genre, and occasionally plays like a cheap Saturday morning cartoon with a hose pipe full of whimsy shoved up its blow hole. It wastes several talented actors in thankless voice-over roles (everyone from the manic Charles Nelson Reilly to the cranky Christopher Plummer sound like they're cashing their paychecks as they perform), and proves that, at least in the Bluth family, the talent tended more toward brother Don than the pen-and-ink neophyte Toby, credited as one of three co-directors of this fetid flotsam. Enduring Babes in Toyland is a task not even Machiste, El Santo, and all but one of the Herculeses could possibly handle.
The initial problem with Babes comes directly from the element it is based on. Let's face it, Victor Herbert and his quippy couplets may have been all the rage before there was electricity or universal indoor plumbing, but such saccharine sentiments, like a land filled with fairytales and talking toys, just don't fly with modern audiences -- unless, of course, there's a Scottish-accented green ogre making fart jokes along the way. Retrofitting the original's evil toymaker vs. wooden soldiers storyline into a combination of various modern motifs, and sprinkling the whole schmegegge with enough rectal retardation to out-stink a frat house, what we end up with is a uneasy combination of sugary Christmas sap, the age-old battle between good and evil, and enough post-modern missteps to make even the most hip prop comic drop his drawers in disdain. The borrowing is brash and quite outrageous, from the House of Mouse homages (every character looks like something found in Uncle Walt's reject pile) to the blatant lifting of story and narrative ideas from other, better family fare. Dr. Seuss, Sid and Marty Krofft -- heck, even the Smurfs get a send-up during this turd of a trauma.
Then there is the creaky, crappy cartooning. What Disney, Warner, and other entities excel at -- basically, the consistency of character modeling and the depth of design and detail -- are all missing in Babes. If it is possible for animated figures to chew the scenery with their illogical line parameters and unpredictable shape-shifting, then Babes in Toyland contains a veritable Wayland Flowers and Madame worth of wonky crayon chaos. Especially irritating are the Skinny and Fatty of foolishness, Rodrigo and Gonzargo. Voiced by Bronson Pinchot and James Belushi respectively, these inept, poorly realized peons are like David Naughton in An American Werewolf in London. Watching them wander around aimlessly, you never know when they are going to transmogrify right before your eyes. One minute they're mindless boobs; the next, one kind of looks like a vulture, the other a polymorphous blob. Sometimes they appear human, at other moments they start to resemble some type of illiterate insect. While the other humans in the film only have to suffer with that most telling of animation amateurishness -- the bean-shaped head -- our rented hoodlums are put through the pen and ink plastic surgery mill. And it's all for the sake of some stupid, uninspired slapstick that never, ever works.
Bluth and his fellow failures do try to keep with the original's operetta overtones by loading this letdown with some of the worst, most miserable musical numbers ever to barf all over a bass clef. Naturally ditching almost all of Herbert's score -- save for the silly title track -- one Mark Watters creates an instantly forgettable (that's why you'll find no lyrical references here) series of songs, crafted with an atonal attention to both melody and madness. Each one of these ear-aching sonic squats reminds us of the genius that is Alan Menken, the Sherman Brothers, and yes, even that rancid old prog-pop poof, Phil Collins. Cementing the certified non-entertainment facets of this film, the aural atrocities offered are the final nail in the coffin that should be buried in a peat bog, never to be heard from again.
Babes in Toyland is a waste of time and talent. You'll feel like you've exhausted too much of the former, while wondering where the Mother Trucking Goose the latter disappeared to. The only reason Victor Herbert isn't doing dirt nap bed spins is because this lump bears so little resemblance to his time-honored quasi-classic. But have no fear, there are many other deceased denizens of the animation afterlife who are making in their mausoleum mattresses, thanks to the plagiaristic skullduggery done by these baneful Babes.
MGM shows its unbridled support for this flimsy film by giving it a kiddie-cognizant full frame transfer. The 1.33:1 screen-filling image is basic and bland. The colors just lie there, and the details tend to disappear, giving a muddled, murky look to the print. Equally uninspired is the Dolby Digital Stereo, presenting its front-heavy hearing impairment with flat, faceless tone and timbre. The songs sound even thinner thanks to this shrill, overmodulated mess. As the voices fight for recognition above the underscoring and the sound effects, you'll be amazed at how much you don't mind missing large passages of dialogue.
As for extras, we get the trailer for the film, and that's it. Nothing else to explain away the funky monkey aftertaste or illogical plotting. But it kind of makes sense. Infants with brains barely able to properly poop their pants won't care for a commentary or behind-the-scenes featurettes. And since adults will be shunning this title like a monogamist at a Mormon wedding, that lack of contextual relevance is understandable.
Making fun of films aimed at toddlers is a lot like taking pot shots at the imbecilic -- there are so many avenues of attack that the entire endeavor seems gratuitous instead of gratifying. With several superior versions of this time-honored tale to be had (including one from Disney and another featuring Laurel and Hardy), this is one animated babysitter that you should just pass by. These babes may feel right at home in Toyland, but your tots will be driven to distemper by this trip into tripe.
Review content copyright © 2005 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 74 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated G