Movies inspired by toys are usually boring affairs that play it safe. There’s a valuable line of merchandise to be promoted and profit margins to be protected so such films seldom take the kind of chances that might make their films colorful and interesting. That’s the approach that the makers of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie took, with the result doing its best to transform the gross-out scourge of the playground into something cuddly and Disney-ish. However, it didn’t work – and the results are a rare example where an attempt to play it safe resulted into something uncategorizably weird.
The Garbage Pail Kids Movie starts off like an afterschool special, with hapless naïf Dodger (Mackenzie Astin) getting picked on by a bully gang led by Juice (Ron MacLachlan) while pining away for Juice’s girl, Tangerine (Katie Barberi). Dodger also works in an antique shop owned by kindly eccentric Captain Manzini (Anthony Newley). One day, the bullies accidentally knock over a trash can that happens to contain a gaggle of Garbage Pail Kids.
Dodger and Manzini try to figure out how to return the trashcan tots to their home – but first they get embroiled in a bizarre subplot in which Dodger gets them to help him get in good with Tangerine by using their skills at creating hip clothing (?) to facilitate her dream of being a high-class fashion designer (??). The surprisingly busy plot also works in some bikers, another subplot involving a city agency trying to imprison the Garbage Pail Kids in a “home for the ugly” and plenty of gags involving bodily functions.
The resulting film does its damndest to play things safe for the kid-movie crowd: the title characters are portrayed as lovable misfit heroes, there’s a treacle-y song about the joys of working together and many potentially dark/weird elements are downplayed in favor of slapstick right of a ’70s Disney live action film. T.V. veteran Rod Amateau directs it all in as pleasantly bland a style as possible and Newley, Astin et al play the scenario out in as straight a fashion as possible.
And yet, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie remains odd and creepy. The designs for the title characters – involving little people wearing gigantic animatronic heads – are disturbing because they are convincingly close likenesses to their trading-card counterparts. While the film tries to make them cute, it also tries to honor the locker-room humor aspect of the trading cards by having gags where the Garbage Pail Kids fart on would-be attackers, wet their pants with nervousness and take out Juice’s henchmen with a stream of projectile vomit.
Going from gross-out moments like those mentioned above to scenes where little girls ooh and aah over hideous ’80s fashion or a harebrained attempt at satire with the “home for the ugly” is enough to induce whiplash. The story feels oddly unfinished in places – for instance, it’s never made clear if Dodger has parents or is an orphan taken in by Manzini – and the weird mishmash of drama, whimsy and gross-out humor ensures the audience can never quite get a handle on what it is watching.
In short, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie isn’t anywhere in the vicinity of good but trash archaeologists may want to check it out for the sheer freakshow value. Even when it tries to sell out, its essential weirdness/grossness keeps pulling it back into bizarro world.
Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory has picked this title up for blu-ray release and turned out an unexpected special edition for it. The transfer does well by a film of late ’80s vintage with a pretty straightforward style, with solid levels of color and detail throughout. The mono audio track is pretty robust for a single-channel affair and gets a nice boost from the lossless treatment it gets here.
Scream Factory has given the film a quartet of new featurettes for its blu-ray debut. An effects piece devotes about 12 minutes to John Buechler and Gino Crognale: they discuss how the suits and animatronic heads were created and Buechler also reveals what his darker take for the film would have been like if he had directed. Six minutes with 1st AD Thomas Irvine discusses the film’s unique challenges from the assistant director’s perspective, like juggling the schedules of kid actors and planning for makeup effects.
A 27-minute interview with Mackenzie Astin is surprisingly entertaining. For starters, he’s energetic and chatty as he relives his childhood memories. He also has a number of interesting stories, including how his mother and father had very different reactions to him starring in the film, how his romantic relationship with co-star Katie Barberi broke up during production and some from-the-heart praise for the little people who played the film’s title characters.
You also get 21 minutes with actors Arturo Gil and Kevin Thompson, who discuss the challenges of playing Garbage Pail Kids. You’ll find out the technical challenges – like working with a puppeteer to adlib through an animatronic head and how the headgear limited their field of vision. They also speak fondly of building characters and the film’s enduring fanbase. A trailer wraps out the extras, using fairytale-style narration to sell the film’s concept in a cutesy way.