For 12 days leading up to Christmas, I will be reviewing 12 Christmas-themed films from across the many decades of film. These will not, however, be your ordinary movie reviews. These will be Social Impact Reviews, providing insight into the various ways several beloved films, cult classics, and new faves have potentially made an impact on viewers like you! My research (for a PhD in political science) looks at the impact of fictional, entertainment media on social, political, and policy attitudes. This set of holiday-themed reviews is my first foray into sharing my research with the public – you! And what better way to start than with holiday favorites?
Babes in Toyland
The Wizard of Oz of Christmas stories, this 1986 remake stars Drew Barrymore as 11-year-old Lisa Piper from Cincinnati, Ohio. After hitting her head in a car/sled accident, Lisa dreams of being transported to the magical Toyland where she teams up with Jack Piper, Mary Contrary, and Georgie Porgie to rescue the town from the clutches of the evil, rich Barnaby Barnacle. These are all, of course, caricatures of people she knows in her real life. Jack is a boy who has a crush on her sister Mary. Georgie works with Mary and Jack at a store called Toyland, and Barnaby is the store’s curmudgeon owner whom we first see sexually harassing young Mary.
As a first kudos to the film, it’s fantastic to see Mary stand up to her boss, Barnaby, when he continues to make inappropriate advances while she works. In Cincinnati, it is Mary who bravely confronts Barnaby about being jerk and a creep while Jack scampers off in fear of their boss. In Toyland, however, Mary plays the damsel in distress, with Lisa and Jack coming to her rescue in the opening Toyland scene. Lisa stops Mary’s wedding to Barnaby, and Jack carries her off while Barnaby is distracted by Lisa. I applaud the initial nod to strong women standing up to power, but can’t say the film strongly continues with this pattern.
Lisa makes a big show of “doing the right thing” like her mother taught her to do, and overall this is a pretty good message. She sometimes comes across as nosy and whiny, but where would we be without the nosy, whiny, loud Lisas of the world? We certainly wouldn’t be as socially advanced as we are, relative though that may be. The strongest implicit message throughout the film is about standing up to power and calling out meanness and injustice, even when it’s inconvenient. Mary, for example, knows that leaving Barnaby at the altar could mean her mother and siblings lose their home, but with Lisa’s help and encouragement, Mary leaves anyway. In the end, they win out over Barnaby, and Mary neither has to marry a cruel man nor lose her mother’s house.
Unfortunately, there are a few other implicit messages that aren’t so helpful. George/Georgie has a round body type, and he’s often depicted eating or being scared about something. Mother Hubbard calls him “Fatty,” and when Georgie saves Jack from Toyland jail and says he’s not made to be a hero, Jack replies, “They could cut about three heroes out of you!” The Cowardly Lion of the group, Georgie does play a big role in saving the town, but these seemingly throwaway comments teach kids to equate being heavier with being not as good or not as brave as thinner people. Another terrible message that comes through is the film’s quickness to equate beauty with goodness and ugliness with evil. In reality, there is zero correlation between physical appearance and ethical integrity, yet it’s a resounding plot point for many children’s stories. For many adults’ stories, too, for that matter.
The most unfortunate implied message of the movie, however, is that people cannot be rehabilitated once they possess a certain amount of evil. The explicit message provided by the Toymaker, a pseudo-Santa Claus played by the great Japanese-American actor Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, is that evil and good are odds in us all. The Toymaster first plans to save the town from Barnaby by finding a way to remove the evil from Barnaby to store in his flask of evil from around the world. But this plan backfires, and instead Barnaby steals the flask of evil and unleashes it on our hero foursome to try and turn them evil. Here, we gain the other half of the implied message – that by fighting the evil within (or hailing from Cincinnati), the good within you will always win out.
On its face, the message seems an excellent one, urging children to fight their wicked impulses and promising them that as long as they keep fighting they will always be “good.” The unfortunate flipside to this message tells children that “bad” people will always be evil and that morality and integrity are only the result of willpower. In reality, willpower doesn’t work that way. Psychological trauma and chemical imbalances can make it much more difficult for people to suppress unhelpful urges, and growing up in traumatic conditions can even rewire the brain to make willpower itself much harder to maintain. The social implication of this message is that any form of mistake is a sign of evil, and the policy implication is that “evil” people must be banned from society. Growing up with this mentality, and having it supported by films like this one, lead adults to view the criminal justice system solely as a means for punishment and removing “evil” people from society. This view of the criminal justice system has led to America having one of the largest prison populations in the world (with approximately 2.3 million people incarcerated).
The explicit message of the film is more positive. Lisa learns from her experiences in Toyland the importance of dreaming and that a childhood full of play is essential. This is a lovely message, especially for the many children who grow up too fast. Granted, many of these children who grow up too fast do not have the same privileges as Lisa. Many don’t live in house or have access to warm clothes and toys. Others may not a loving, supportive family, like Lisa’s older sister who works hard to help provide a childhood for her younger siblings. It may be easy to say, “we must stay young and try to be good, and above all we must believe, and then we’ll always have a good Christmas,” like Lisa does at the end of the film. But in reality, this can be very difficult for many families. That being said, those things are still important, and it’s a wonderful sentiment that at least during Christmas, we can all strive for that level of positivity and gratitude.
In all, it’s a fun children’s movie, but it might be best to leave in the 1980s. It won’t win any awards for social message or diversity. The explicit messages are well meaning, but the implicit messages counteract them sharply. Even children are more likely to mimic what they see than to follow what they’re told. And what they see could have serious sociopolitical implications, not to mention personal ramifications, should they take the implied messages of this film to heart.