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Imagine, if you will, a made-for-TV holiday movie retelling of an obscure 1960s Annette Funicello star vehicle based on a 1903 operetta whose popularity spawned several tours and Broadway revivals, making it the Wicked of its age.
Now, imagine if this made-for-TV holiday movie starred Keanu Reeves.
Ding-dang, have I got good news for you, reader. Such a wonder of holiday magic exists.
How does one begin to describe the many weird layers of this yuletide tale? I mean, it’s Keanuvember, so obviously I namedropped him first. But I didn’t mention the part where he sings an ode to Cincinnati and his enthusiasm for the scrappy Ohio city results in a car accident and Drew freakin’ Barrymore sustaining a traumatic brain injury. Do I go on to talk about the plethora of feathers in bad guy Richard Mulligan’s costume and how weird it is that he went from having an evil bird as a sidekick to starring in a show called Empty Nest? Eileen Brennan as a neglectful mother? Pat Morita commanding an army of toy soldiers? At what point does this entire thing start to sound painfully made up? Walk with me now through the incredible world that is 1986’s Babes in Toyland.
- After an excessively long, impressionist credits sequence that would make Van Gogh weep at its beauty, we join Lisa, an 11-year-old Drew Barrymore. A freak Christmas Eve storm has delayed Lisa’s mother, Eileen Brennan, and brother Joey, a child actor whose lines are clearly dubbed in by an adult woman. From the way Lisa picks up her older sister Mary’s (Jill Schoelen) shoes and promises to have dinner on the table by the time their mother gets home, Lisa is clearly keeping her barely functioning family on track.
- I mean, when Mary boasts about the amazing present she bought Lisa for Christmas, Lisa’s first guess is that it’s a blender. Something is not great in this house.
- Despite the arctic blast, Mary’s evil boss Barnie (Richard Mulligan) has his employees at the toy store on the full-time hustle. When he’s not busy barking orders at his workers, he’s giving out inappropriate backrubs to young women. For what is Christmas, truly, if none of us are confronting workplace harassment?
- Back at home, Lisa watches the weather report while making Christmas Eve dinner for her family, who seem content to let a child function as the only adult in the house.
- When the storm knocks out the phone lines, Lisa bundles up and heads out into the snow probably as much out of boredom as any real concern about her family. In the ‘80s, we had to make our own fun.
- ENTER KEANU. This adorable little piece sits himself down at Mary’s workstation and suggests they go out and get a pizza. And what does Mary, inexplicably, say to this? No, sorry, future star of The Matrix and Canadian heartthrob Keanu frickin’ Reeves, I’ve got other offers. Better offers than Keanu Reeves? 1986 Keanu Reeves, so fresh-faced, so guileless? Good for you, Mary.
- Lisa makes her way to the toy store to warn everyone about the dangerous storm. But do you think Barnie the humbug manager can be moved to let his employees go home before the worst of the front hits? Absolutely not. He’s got time to openly proposition Mary, though, sending her temper through the roof. She excoriates him and his “smutty thoughts” in front of concerned customers, then tells him that she’s leaving. This is what we with “at-will” employment experience know as “refusal to work,” and it predictably results in her getting fired. Barnie also cans Keanu and his friend/Samwise Gamgee stand-in George (Googy Gress), so Lisa doesn’t have anything to lose when she gets on the PA system and incites a full-on panic. With a few more parting shots to Barnie, the ragamuffin group of unemployeds depart the store with Lisa’s Christmas gift, a sled, in tow.
- Because this is 1986, Mary warns Lisa to buckle the sled into the seatbelt when they pile into Keanu’s—OK, fine, Jack’s, I’ll use his character name—Jeep and head off on the treacherous roads. With Lisa unbelted, riding on the sled and struggling to keep the soft-top closed, Jack breaks into a rousing musical theater number celebrating Cincinnati.
- While listing the many attractive attributes of the “Maserati” of Ohio (and yes, they painfully force the word to rhyme with “Cincinnati,” which you will always be able to spell reliably after listening to the song), the car weaves all over the road. When a tree falls in front of them, Keanu is unable to avoid a sharp stop, launching Lisa and her sled out of the Jeep and down an embankment, where she Ethan Fromes backward into a tree. All is darkness.
- To the strains of “Toyland,” one of two numbers from the original 1903 production that survived the gauntlet of remakes, Lisa rides her sled through the sky, descending upon a quaint village of candy-pink houses. She crashes into a cake. The police bear does nothing.
- Immediately on the heels of an aerial attack, two hunchbacks sneak through a fence and right up to the scene of the crime. I will refer to them as Riff-Raff and Uncle Fester. And if I were chief of the teddy bear police, I would refer to the guy above as “no longer working for our department.”
- Lisa marches along with a crowd of citizens and meets Georgie Porgie, who is George from the toy store. In Lisa’s coma, however, he’s just a walking fat joke. He sadly informs Lisa that his best friend, Jack, is about to lose his beloved, Mary, in an arranged marriage to the evil Barnaby.
- The villainous Barnaby lives inside a giant bowling ball. Mary has to marry Barnaby in order to save their mother’s house from foreclosure, as the vile man has, like Bank of America in 2008, bought their mortgage and jacked up the terms.
- Even worse, Barnaby is Jack’s uncle. As Mary walks down the aisle, Jack appears in the crowd, heroic and heartbroken as he watches the woman he loves wed another in front of a crowd of animal-human hybrids. I’ve always thought that you can tell how good an actor is based on how seriously they take themselves in a truly ridiculous role. This is why Speed worked but Speed 2: Cruise Control didn’t. Jason Patric couldn’t look past how ridiculously bad the script was in order to fully immerse himself. Keanu could.
- Let’s all keep uncomfortably in mind that the stuff that’s happening is part of a Wizard of Oz-style concussion dream in which characters and events are inspired by real-life counterparts, meaning that Lisa’s unconscious brain is constructing this arranged marriage out of the experience of witnessing a middle-aged man sexually harassing her teen sister. And at no point in what I can only presume was the cocaine-fueled all-night brainstorming session that resulted in this movie did anyone stop and go, “You know, maybe we should keep this light.”
- The Justice of the Peace apologizes to the couple on behalf of the Toy Master, a mysterious figure in Toyland who is in charge of making all the toys for Christmas. He’s too busy to attend the wedding but sends his regards, as well as a cryptic statement about true love conquering all. That’s not good enough for Lisa, who wants to know why, if this Toy Master guy is so powerful and good, is he allowing the wedding to happen? And when this philosophical mystery isn’t answered to her satisfaction, she confidently offers up an objection at the last minute.
- Barnaby, enraged by the interruption, tells Lisa to mind her own business, but don’t even get Lisa started, OK? She shames Eileen Brennan, her mother’s Toyland doppelganger, for basically selling her daughter to a pervert.
- Barnaby sics Riff-Raff and Fester on Lisa, and in the commotion Jack breaks free from teddy bears. He rushes up to the altar and sweeps Mary off her feet, leaving a humiliated Barnaby to stalk back to his bowling ball to consult his one-eyed, psychic bird and formulates a plan to sabotage the cookie factory. That is a sentence that I just wrote.
- Why would Barnaby want to attack a cookie factory? Check this: Not only is Jack Barnaby’s nephew, but he’s also about to take over operations at the cookie factory. Cookies are a big deal; they serve not just as delicious treats and the village’s main food source, but they’re also the currency that Toyland trades with.
- Also, Eileen Brennan is Mrs. Hubbard. A long line of nursery rhyme children follow her everywhere. Wee Willie Winky, Peter Piper, Jack and Jill, Little Boy Blue, Jack Horner, all of whom sprang from her fruitful loins. But love has burned her, saddling her with a lifetime of poverty and stress. She is to Babes in Toyland as Fantine is to Les Miserables.
- Jack arrives at the toy factory, then the teddy bear police arrive to take him into custody for trying to “create a federal cookie deficit.” Direct quote. But here’s how you know this is fantasy: The guy who got caught tanking the economy actually gets arrested for it.
- Mary and Jack serenade each other through the bars of the jail cell, and the people who made this movie made absolutely no attempt to match the voices of the dubbed singers to the speaking voices of the actors on the screen. The official soundtrack credits list Keanu and Jill Schoelen as having performed this duet. This is demonstrably not true. Someday, I’m going to meet Keanu Reeves. And I’m going to be like, “Mr. Reeves. Look me right in the eye. Right in the eye, right now. I’m a human lie detector, broseph. Bro. Bro. Look at me. Did you actually sing those songs in Babes in Toyland in 1986?” And he’s not going to lie to me because Keanu Reeves does not lie.
- Georgie arrives with the keys to set Jack free, at which point Jack calls him fat. Seriously, he says they could make three heroes out of Georgie. Thanks for the rescue, fatty. Let me just bash down your self-esteem to repay you. Georgie asserts that they need to go straight to the Toy Master, but Lisa wants to know why this guy hasn’t intervened already. Things start to skirt dangerously close to a philosophical debate over the existence of God and such a being’s influence over cosmic justice, with Lisa taking the position of an atheist and the rest of them arguing that while the Toy Master’s ways are mysterious, they are part of a greater plan. Either that or I’m reading way too much into this.
- The Toy Master “seeks out the evil in the world” and keeps it in a bottle. Through the eye of his psychic cyclops chicken, Barnaby learns about the bottle of evil. He wants to gain control of it, while the Toy Master plans to capture Barnaby’s evil inside it. Does anyone else feel like the worldbuilding in this is way too complicated for the type of program it is? We started with a cute song about Ohio, now we’re breaking people out of jail, talking about grand larceny, communicating with powerful wizards and investigating crime scenes.
- To add yet another subplot to this already complicated tale, Barnaby has created a race of monsters and threatens to feed Mary to the monsters if Jack doesn’t write a letter breaking up with her. Heartbroken, she returns home, where Barnaby continues his romantic pursuit. But Lisa creates an intentional mix-up with a bouquet to convince Mary’s mother that Barnaby’s true interest lies with her instead, because there wasn’t enough going on in the story already.
- A bunch of stuff happens, there are some battles, honestly it’s a lot, and Lisa becomes a pawn in a struggle between good and evil, as one does. The Toyland residents, unaware that a golem-like regiment of unblinking clones is coming to defend them, take matters into their own hands. They build a barricade out of furniture and blocks, leading me to make the second Les Miserables reference of this recap. Things go just about as well for Toyland as they did for Les Amis.
- The Toy Master banishes Barnaby to the forest, where he’ll have to live amongst his monsters, who mutiny and ... devour him, I guess. It’s not really clear what they’re doing as they envelop his screaming form.
- Mary and Jack get married and, for reasons that must relate to delivering two and a half hours' worth of commercial breaks, we see the entire wedding. That’s OK, though, because Keanu gets to flex more dramatic muscle.
- Look at this face. This longing glance. The myriad emotions contained in a single frame as he watches his bride walk up the aisle. This performance was delivered standing on the porch of a pink house, in front of a crowd of adults wearing whimsical animal costumes. I demand a retroactive Emmy. Justice for Keanu!
- After the wedding, Lisa prepares to return to Cincinnati or, as we know it, consciousness. The Toy Master advises her to avoid growing up too fast. As the town turns out to wish her goodbye, “Toyland” plays once more. Santa arrives on a sleigh pulled by wheeled wooden reindeer, his trunk already full of gifts. I expect that under his breath, the Toy Master is like, “No, that’s fine, bring your own shit. I didn’t stay up all night and almost lose the battle between good and evil to fulfill your inventory order or anything.”
- But oh ho! What is this? The Toy Master was Santa Claus all along! He drives Lisa off on his sleigh to return her to her world as everyone waves like they’re watching Sandy and Danny soar off into the clouds. Apparently, this type of exit requires space travel, so I hope Greased Lightning had a functioning airlock.
- Back at home, Lisa wakes on her couch. Not in the hospital. On the couch, where her mother has just been letting her snooze off her head injury rather than seeking medical treatment for her. Ah, the ‘80s.
- The real-life Mary, Jack, and George are there, too, so Lisa can explain their Toyland adventures to them. As she impresses upon them the importance of believing in the spirit of the holiday season, she spots a gift from the Toy Master, suggesting that she didn’t wake up and is merely trapped in a hellish loop. She will never truly escape Toyland.
- At least there’s one thing we can all agree on: Keanu Reeves is the greatest actor of our time and he’s been proving himself reliably in even the most absurd projects for 35 years of excellence.