Mediocre: Babes in Toyland

Babes in Toyland (1986)
Directed by Clive Donner
Written by Glen MacDonough, Paul Zindel
Produced by Tony Ford, Neil T. Maffeo, Anthony Spinner, Bill Finnegan, Patricia Finnegan, Sheldon Pinchuk
Starring Drew Barrymore, Richard Mulligan, Keanu Reeves, Jill Schoelen, Googy Gress, Pat Morita, Eileen Brennan, Walter Buschhoff, Shari Weiser, Rolf Knie, Gaston Häni, Pipo Sosman, Chad Carlson
Middling production values and design, clever yet unmemorable musical numbers and plenteous daffy havoc distinguish this sweet yet slight televised adaptation of Victor Herbert’s and Glen MacDonough’s fabular operetta from its six predecessors. One inanely implausible automotive accident during a blizzard on Christmas Eve delivers a preteen (Barrymore) to a fantastic municipality resembling a tidy, second-rate theme park populated by bipedally anthropomorphic animals and characters from nursery rhymes to unite a pair of lovers (Reeves, Schoelen), learn a few lessons from a magian artisan (Morita) in Santa’s employ, and thwart the maniacally pleonexic designs of a feathered, usurious scoundrel (Mulligan). For adults, entertainment resides in these principals’ alternately wooden and hammy delivery, and Donner’s perfunctory direction leaves but a bit to the imagination, but this musical’s adequate for families whose wee ones aren’t yet terribly demanding, fans of America’s favorite little addict when she was still only incipiently corrupt, and anyone apt to ogle Reeves and Schoelen for their pulchritude. Brennan’s comic timing exceeds that of her co-stars, but she’s granted regrettably scanty screen time. Don’t expect much of Herbert’s music, which is quoted occasionally in Leslie Bricusse’s score and songs. Two versions were broadcast in the United States and Germany, respectively running 140 and 95 minutes; the condensed shorter of these is commonly available on videocassette and videodisc, though both are streamed by various services.

Recommended for a double feature paired with The Wizard of Oz or Disney’s superior Babes in Toyland.

Palatable: Little Big Man

Little Big Man (1970)
Directed by Arthur Penn
Written by Thomas Berger, Calder Willingham
Produced by Stuart Millar, Gene Lasko
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Chief Dan George, Richard Mulligan, Faye Dunaway, Jeff Corey, Martin Balsam, Thayer David, Robert Little Star, Aimee Eccles
To a haughty historian, a centenarian (Hoffman) recounts a series of escapades and misadventures ensuing his pioneer family’s slaughter by Pawnee marauders, his adoption by and acculturation to a Cheyenne tribe and eventual reclamation to white society, wherein he’s a unique anomaly. A dear rapport with the chief (George) and tribe who raised the talented nebbish is contrasted often against his varied associations with a blusteringly pietistic reverend (David) and his gorgeous, goatish wife (Dunaway), one glibly inveterate mountebank (Balsam) who suffers amputations by requital for the sale of his noisome nostrums, famed gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok (Corey), and dashing, opaque, cruelly imperious Gen. George Custer (Mulligan), here disbosomed a villain by Berger’s and Willingham’s modern revisionism. Navigating both tribal and post-European cultures in frequent alternation, Hoffman’s nomad observes with his audience the eccentricities, vices and hypocrisies of both, as well as the slow, sorrowful genocide of the Cheyenne committed by the U.S. Army and their Pawnee rivals. Poignant, exciting and uproarious, Penn’s picaresque western benefits tremendously from first-rate comic performance and Hal Needham’s choreography, but the director maladroitly melds tragedy and farce in a manner that occasionally negatives the impact of either. This condemnation of bloodthirsty overreach in the age of Manifest Destiny hasn’t the appeal of Leone’s, Peckinpah’s and Hill’s classics depicting the old west’s disappearance a year or two preceding, but it’s worth revisiting for its mirth and gravity, as well as the senile makeup by which Hoffman was transformed into an ancient remnant of a history aggrieved by its hecatombs.