Cincinnati. I’ve been able to spell that natty name from memory since I was 8 or so thanks to Keanu Reeves’ 1986 Christmas TV movie ‘Babes in Toyland’ and its off-kilter yet hearty tribute to the city.
‘Babes in Toyland’ begins on Christmas Eve when independent 11-year-old Lisa (Drew Barrymore) is left home alone by her single working mom Mrs Piper (Eileen Brennan) during a snowstorm. Lisa, an adultified child — an eerie mirror of Barrymore herself during that time — decides to go visit her older sister Mary (Jill Schoelen) at the toy store where she works, in spite of the blizzard conditions. At Mr Barnie’s (Richard Mulligan) toy store, the madhouse vibe is accentuated by Barnie sexually harassing Mary and threatening to fire her if she continues seeing her appropriately aged boyfriend Jack (Keanu Reeves). In a fit of frustration they all decide to quit and it’s on the perilous drive home Jack loses control of the car and Lisa wakes up in Toyland — where versions of everyone in her life have Toyland counterparts.
On the surface Toyland is an absolute Disneyfied dream. All pastels and adorable characters driving around in puttery little cars. But just a quick peek deeper and the darkness lurks in elderly Mr Barnaby Barnicle (Mulligan) coercing teenage Mary Contrary (Schoelen) to marry him or else he’ll evict her mother and her huge gaggle of children from their shoe house.
And it gets more twisted from there. Barnaby Barnicle — who lives in a creepy forest outside town — has designs to create a troll army to take over Toyland, and the world beyond. There’s even a hellmouth under his forest where the trolls are breeding, and where Mary Contrary and Lisa eventually get held prisoner. There’s so much grim in this story, even amid the adorableness of the town. Like the Teddy Bear police force who often violently herd both citizens and intruders. It’s a weird moment of copaganda that even in this imaginary Toyland, the framework of the police state extends.
But ‘Babes in Toyland’ does offer some lovely moments. Like Keanu as chivalrous and brave Jack Be Nimble, who is as adorable as he is badass even as a youngster. And the only ever instance of an Asian Santa Claus in Pat Morita’s Toy Master, who brings a wonderful moment of representation that remains singular in pop-culture history.
This is an absolutely wackadoo movie and to me represents the 80s in a really specific way that couldn’t be captured or replicated now. Young Keanu is a dream. And the musical numbers are so delightfully bizarre, this ends up being a strange little masterpiece of a time capsule.
✨Georgie Porgie/5 stars. Highly recommend streaming this for free on Tubi.✨
Zuzu Zombie’s #Horrorthon365 project is a collection of eclectic genre watchlists with accompanying microreviews to suit the changing seasons. Horrorthon365 was sparked by a gnarly hand injury and carpal tunnel surgery gone awry, hence the flash-style reviews. After a wicked fall at home and brutal elbow fracture that required surgery, posts will be sporadic until I’m healed. In the meantime, browse the entire collection here.