The hottest toy in the mid-1980s was the Cabbage Patch Kid, a line of ugly plush dolls that were each “unique” and came with individual “adoption papers.” The designer of the doll, Xavier Roberts, tattooed his name on the butt of each one. Today, Angelina Jolie does the same thing with her orphans.
At the height of the doll’s popularity, the Topps Chewing Gum company did what anyone would do: parody the Cabbage Patch Kids via a line of trading cards featuring grotesque drawings of deformed children. It was a wonder no one else thought of it first. With clever names like “Adam Bomb” (in which the little boy’s head is exploding) and “Snotty Scotty” (self-explanatory), the Garbage Pail Kids became a sensation of their own in 1985 and 1986. This was followed, in 1987, by “The Garbage Pail Kids Movie,” which was 1) too late, 2) barely released, and 3) apocalyptically bad.
The first question anyone making a Garbage Pail Kids movie must ask himself, after “Why?” and “What have I become?,” is how to visually portray the title characters. The obvious route would be animation. But building giant foam heads and putting them on midgets is much faster and cheaper, as foam and midgets are two of Hollywood’s most abundant natural resources. You can also save some money if you don’t bother to make the foam heads’ mouths or eyes move in anything approaching a normal way. Who cares if the resulting image of lazy-eyed, encephalitic monsters is unsettling?
After one of the most absurd credits I’ve ever seen — “A Topps Chewing Gum Production” — we meet Captain Manzini (Anthony Newley), a whimsical British man who owns an antique shop and has magical powers. His only friend and employee is Dodger (Mackenzie Astin), a 14-year-old boy who I guess is an orphan, though where he lives, and with whom, is never addressed. Dodger is frequently beset by older bullies who torment him for undefined reasons. The main one is named Juice (Ron MacLachlan), and his girlfriend is named Tangerine (Katie Barberi). Both monikers are announced nonchalantly, as if people have names like Juice and Tangerine all the time. Dodger has a crush on Tangerine, but since Mackenzie Astin was in early adolescence during shooting while Katie Barberi was well beyond him, it looks like a 12-year-old boy flirting with an 18-year-old girl. It’s hilarious and sad.
So we’ve already stacked up an impressive pile of failure, and we haven’t even met the Garbage Pail Kids yet! They emerge from a metal trash can in Captain Manzini’s shop, like genies out of a bottle, and establish themselves instantly as destructive, vile, unpleasant creatures. They have names like Valerie Vomit, Windy Winston, Foul Phil, and Ali Gator (a ghastly human-alligator hybrid with a taste for human flesh — and I’m not even making that up). One is a “nerd,” bespectacled, pimply, and always wetting his pants. This is a common trait among nerds now? Poor bladder control? I like to think I know my stereotypes pretty well, but I never heard the one about nerds peeing themselves.
There are seven of these atrocities in total, all farting, belching, oozing, snotting, and vomiting. Someone thought it would be fun to take the gross cartoon drawings on the trading cards and bring them to life. That person was mistaken.
The Kids sort of obey the Captain, except for the part where he tells them to get back in the garbage pail whence they came. For that, he’ll need a magic spell to force them, presumably because he’s loath to physically shove them back in the can manually. I guess killing them isn’t an option, either, though it’s the first thing I thought of. So the Kids hang around the antique store’s basement and help Dodger in his quest to woo Tangerine. There are also approximately three lines of dialogue referring to the Kids’ desire to find the other Garbage Pail Kids, wherever they might be, but then the movie forgets to do anything with it until the last act, when exactly one line of dialogue reveals that they’re all dead. I’m not making that up, either.
But back to Dodger and Tangerine. She is a budding fashion designer who sells her creations in the alley behind the teen dance club every Friday night. Fashion is very important to her, to the extent that the garish abominations that hang flaccidly from her body can truly be said to represent “fashion.” Luckily, the Garbage Pail Kids are very good fashion designers, too, obviously, and they make a dazzling jacket for Dodger that he wears in front of Tangerine, instantly impressing her. She says if he can make another dozen just like it by Friday, she’ll help him sell them. She seems genuinely turned on by his supposed sartorial prowess — which, again, is creepy, given that he looks like a little boy.
Speaking of creepy, there’s a scene where Dodger gets dirty and must take a bath … in a claw-foot tub in the Captain’s antique store basement … with no visible source of water attached to it … with all the Garbage Pail Kids standing around watching, their foam faces locked in perpetual leers. When Dodger awkwardly gets out of the bath and wraps himself in a towel, one of the female Kids says, “He’s got cute legs!” BUT HEAVEN HELP ME, SHE WAS NOT LOOKING AT HIS LEGS.
So Dodger enlists the Garbage Pail Kids to be his sweatshop and make a dozen hideous jackets by Friday. They all agree that this is something they can do, then confirm it by singing a song entitled “We Can Do Anything by Working with Each Other.” Yes, there is a musical number in this movie. Why wouldn’t there be? Can you imagine one earthly reason why there would not be a musical number in this movie? That’s what I thought. Anyway, their musical assertion notwithstanding, there are many things that the Garbage Pail Kids cannot do, no matter how much they work with each other. Move their lips when they talk, for example.
Then there is a sequence in which the Kids go out for a night on the town, “disguising” themselves by putting on dark sunglasses and trenchcoats, as if that will hide the fact that their heads are three times larger than any normal person’s. Ali Gator goes to a biker bar, bites someone’s toes, then somehow becomes friends with everyone. The others go to a movie theater and harass audience members, who are watching Three Stooges shorts and thus probably not enjoying themselves anyway.
Oh! But I have not told you yet about the State Home for the Ugly! This is a place where ugly people are taken to, against their will, for the good of the community. It is the first idea the movie has had that I can really get behind. This is why the Captain warned the Kids to stay hidden in the basement, because he worried they’d be hauled away if anyone saw them. Sure enough, that’s what happens, and so Dodger has to go in and rescue everyone from their cages.
This is accomplished just in time for everyone to hurry to Tangerine’s fashion show, where she’s unveiling her line of tacky, lurid trampwear. It was she and Juice who got the Garbage Pail Kids taken away to the State Home for the Ugly, so now the Kids and Dodger have to get their revenge by ruining her show. This they do by rushing in and tearing the clothes off the models’ bodies. (To preserve the PG rating, the models are all wearing bathing suits underneath, not underwear.)
Afterward, Tangerine tries to apologize to Dodger for her double-crossing, but he’ll have none of it. He’s totally over his crush on her, for he has seen that while she might be pretty on the outside (questionable) she is ugly on the inside. The Garbage Pail Kids, though — they may be ugly on the outside, but inside they are … well, hateful, demonic hellspawn. But they served a worthwhile purpose, or something. I don’t know. The movie and I were never able to agree on whether they were good guys or bad guys. The movie and I had several differences of opinion, actually. The movie thought I should keep watching it, while I thought I should turn it off and drink vodka until I pass out.