Christmas Day in Rainbowland – 1985 Holiday Toys

1985!

The world got some good stuff in 1985 like Cherry Coke, Classic Coke, “We Are The World”, and Back to the Future.

1985 also found society in the middle of a huge media shift to the home video market.  VCR players were finally somewhat affordable to the average Joe and this would cause the VHS rental and retail market to explode. No longer were you chained to a TV station’s decisions to run (or not run) your favorite show – you could record and playback to your heart’s content. It’s difficult to overstate what a game changer this was.  Plus, retailers could now get away with charging an arm and a leg for VHS copies of Hollywood hits…for a while, at least.

Our robot toy fever had somewhat subsided, although the bigger robot brands like Transformers still had a hold on kids’ imaginations.  Other hit properties of the past few years, like G.I. Joe and Cabbage Patch Kids had new lines and iterations for the 1985 season, but let’s take a look at some new breakouts.

Rambo

Rambo was a huge box-office and cultural hit in 1985, but I don’t know how popular this toy line actually was. I do know that this is the most violent toy commercial I’ve ever seen. The animation at the top of the ad is just brutal!

Rainbow Brite

Rainbow Brite and the Color Kids weren’t a new property in 1985 – the show and toys had debuted a year earlier – but this year the franchise was really rolling along with some additions to the toy lineup like Starlite and Lurky…

…and a 10 song Christmas album!

Madballs

These foam baseball-sized toys came in a variety of grotesque personas.  The ’80s was a case study in how to make toys “politely” gross – repulsive enough to be attractive to the boy market but benign enough that parents would pay for it.  I think Madballs hit that balance well.

He-Man Fright Zone

First there was the epic Castle Grayskull playset. Then there was the even-more-epic Snake Mountain playset. Then, in 1985, there was the… Fright Zone.  A cool playset, but nothing on the scale of the two lairs. This release reflects a point where He-Man started to drift away from the core offering, iterating into more niche products.  Still, a cool playset with an integrated puppet component!

Nintendo Entertainment System

The system that changed everything. As you can see in the ad the game line up isn’t quite there yet, but it was already clear that this was head and shoulders above any home video game offering up to that point. Nintendo knew what they had on their hands, and things only went up from here.

Teddy Ruxpin

1985’s riot-maker and secondary-market-darling was an animatronic teddy bear that could talk. Worlds of Wonder’s Teddy Ruxpin shook things up with a competent articulation and a deep bench of content. Kids would insert story cassette tapes into Teddy’s back containing stories that Teddy would tell.  Further down the line Teddy’s friends could be connected to Teddy to tell the stories together.

This show-and-tell has the toughest crowd I have ever seen. These kids are like Hollywood agents who have seen it all.

Teddy had a pretty high price point, and the individual story cassettes weren’t cheap either. The product didn’t have the longevity that Worlds of Wonder probably wanted, but it was an impressive piece of technology that deserved the heads it turned. And yeah, it was pretty creepy too.

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Thanksgiving Is Tomorrow – The Facts of Life Reunion (2001)

I don’t normally push into the 2000’s here, but I guess it was just a matter of time.  And technically you could argue that this movie’s a reunion of a show from the ’80s so that makes it an ’80s thing. Also it’s almost Thanksgiving here in the US and Thanksgiving happens in this movie, so that makes it make sense, too. It makes more sense than the bulk of The Facts of Life Reunion. If this movie were a project at the Eastland Academy, it’d be a solid D.

Going into this I assumed it would follow a traditional ‘reunion’ format – the separated gang  has lost their happiness in their separate lives and their reunion helps them find their happiness that they then take to fix their separate lives. I guess it kind of tries to do that but it gets lost in even more cliche’ sitcom tropes along the way and the whole thing just turns into a mess.

The movie starts with the gang scattered across the world, the most exotic of them all being the intrepid Mrs. Garrett. She’s on a cruise ship, flirting hard with the captain himself, and really the whole reunion is worth it for her dramatic 180-degree reveal. This had to make Charlotte Rae feel good.

Spoiler alert: we’re about 45 seconds in and this quick dramatic take is the highlight of the entire thing. It’s all downhill from here.

The gang all has their own things going on: Tootie’s got a talk show, Natalie’s a high-powered news segment producer, and Blaire’s…still rich. They’re all getting their affairs in order to head back to Peekskill for a Thanksgiving reunion.

Once reunited, the tropes start piling on. Before we get into them, it’s worth noting that Jo couldn’t make it. Her husband brings their daughter to Peekskill, then quickly leaves to “do a couple tracks on the new Backstreet Boys album”, leaving Samantha alone with these women who all smile and nod as if this is a normal thing to thrust upon people. So Samantha’s kind of our Jo, but not really because she’s a kid and does kid stuff the entire time…which is one of the tropes.

So let’s get into it – these are out of order, sort of, but who cares because this movie is a mess anyway.

Love Triangle

Natalie’s got two boyfriends, straight-laced rich man Robert and slightly-less-straight-laced rich man Harper. For whatever reason they both show up to Mrs. Garrett’s inn for Thanksgiving and so instead of spending time together over the holidays the girls divide and conquer so that the boyfriends never see each other.  It’s not a stretch to say that this is the bulk of the movie; it goes on and on, feeling like an extended Three’s Company episode.

Eventually the secret’s out and the two men are aware of each other. Rather than Natalie and her suitors having a grown-up discussion taking everyone’s feelings into consideration, the gang pitches in to slap together a pageant in which the men try to outdo each other in various categories: a footrace, poetry, “listening”, and a swimsuit competition where the men dance for all the women – including the young girls. All of the females are making cat-calls.  The men start a fist fight.  At this point the train isn’t just off the rails, it’s crashed into the Walmart in the middle of town.

The movie tries to get its act together as Natalie finally has the grown-up talk, but it’s too late. She picks Harper, and Robert immediately starts to move in on Tootie? Gross.

Dream Marriage With A Secret

When Blaire’s not running interference on Natalie’s love triangle, she’s talking about her perfect rich marriage to her perfect rich man. As the movie progresses she gets a little more suspicious of what her husband – who couldn’t make the trip to Peekskill – is up to. She tries calling him and a mysterious woman picks up the phone, so Blaire decides to go to the city to confront him.

Turns out his big secret is that he’s volunteering with children at a hospital because he always wanted kids, something Blaire didn’t know about. Big drama, right? Easily resolved: they decide to have kids.  Seriously, that’s how thin Blaire’s story is.  It’s also worth pointing out the bad costuming on the kids. This guy’s got a bleeding headwound, just playing in the rec room!

Kids Acting Out

Jo’s daughter Sam and Tootie’s daughter Tisha are stuck hanging out with each other all week. They also meet a certainly-underage bellboy who I guess both of them have a crush on? It never really goes anywhere in either direction, but keeps getting hinted.

Anyway, they steal Blaire’s car, as you do, and drive into town where they get busted sneaking into Eastland Academy. As you do. This weird aside serves to remind the girls of what’s truly important in life.  The viewer’s not really looped in on what that is, though.

 

Mistaken Identity

The newest addition to the Facts of Life gang is Chef Gauguin, the head of the kitchen at Mrs. Garrett’s inn.  We spend more time with the Chef than necessary, as the tension of the main storylines are punctuated with his kitchen woes. Most notably he eavesdrops on Robert’s phone call and incorrectly deduces that Robert is a food critic that the Chef has been expecting.  He spends most of the movie trying to impress him, which rewards the viewer with a thin payoff in the final scene.

Also he and Mrs. Garrett start flirting? What?

For a reunion that’s supposedly a long time coming, the gang sure doesn’t spend a lot of time together. Instead they divide and conquer with Natalie, Tootie and Blaire constantly splitting up the love triangle and Mrs. Garrett trapped in her perpetual B-story. The kids are off in their own silo, and everyone comes together in the final ten minutes of the movie for Thanksgiving. Remember Thanksgiving? It’s the whole reason for the movie, the television event, and the reunion.  For 80 solid minutes there’s been hardly a peep about Thanksgiving, but it’s here and so are we.

Mrs. Garrett’s son dresses up like a pilgrim. This new costume is presented without comment, and nobody else dresses up.

There’s a touching toast from Mrs. Garrett that highlights the virtues of Natalie, Blaire, Tootie, and nobody else – not even her son.

There’s the traditional Thanksgiving  dance party featuring “Jump” by the Pointer Sisters.

The food critic finally shows up, for some reason. Was this necessary?

And so does the cruise captain from the beginning.

And we’re out. Guys, this movie is garbage. I know this isn’t meant to be a prestige production – it’s The Facts of Life, after all – but it could have been much better than this. I can’t imagine this scratching anyone’s itch for more Facts in their lives. The movie of their trip to Australia with the jewel thieves was much more satisfying than this. Here it is, though, if you really need that fix. Happy Thanksgiving.

Claymation Comedy of Horrors (1991)

Is there a Will Vinton seasonal TV special that’s not an absolute classic? If there is, I haven’t seen it yet. 1991’s “Claymation Comedy Of Horrors” continues the streak, with some of the best stop motion work I’ve ever seen. The story? Eh. But the animation? Classic.

“Claymation Comedy of Horrors” opens with a flashback to a pig named Dr. Frankenswine (get it?) in his lab, putting together an epic formula.  He can’t finish his work because the villagers are at his door with pitchforks, so he sends his diary out the window for safety.

We then cut to Wilshire Pig and his friend Sheldon Snail as Wilshire works on a get rich quick-ish scheme involving a sort of carnival ride.

The ride creates a crater, in which Sheldon discovers Dr. Frankenswine’s diary. The diary reveals the existence of a monster that – for some reason- Wilshire thinks can make him rich. Sheldon’s tongue has – for some reason – become the map to the castle, and the duo take off.

The castle’s hosting a Halloween event, with the full cadre of monster attendees.  Wilshire and Sheldon pose as monsters themselves, go through the paces of a few gags, and find the monster. I should reiterate at this point that ALL OF THIS IS BEAUTIFULLY ANIMATED.

Long story short, Wilshire and Sheldon find their monster (spoiler: he’s tiny), find Dr. Frankenswine’s potion, and create a giant monster that threatens to destroy everything until a callback from Wilshire and Sheldon’s carnival scheme saves the day.

So, yeah, the story’s not great but you can see the love and enthusiasm that went into imagining gags for just about every type of monster you could think of.  As a kid wanting to celebrate Halloween with a TV special, this really hits the sweet spot. It’s a very engaging watch, and one of a kind. Check it out.

 

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A Tsunami of Sightings – Alien Encounters From New Tomorrowland (1995)

In 1995 the Magic Kingdom took a turn for the scary. Not “hey let’s put more pumpkins in the park” scary or “hey let’s put a Dracula cape on Mickey” scary but like, legit “let’s make little kids cry” scary. Mission to Mars, the iconic theatrical ride featuring a simulated trip to the Red Planet, had shuttered in 1993, and 1995 saw its replacement in the form of the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.

The gist of the ride has park-goers captive in a dark theater as a technological glitch enables an alien to teleport among them. The lights mostly out, the theater uses sound, smell and touch to simulate an alien among the crowd, and even right behind you.

Fun fact: this was originally supposed to be THE alien, the Xenomorph; the ride was supposed to be the Nostromus, and the sponsoring company in the ride was supposed to be Weyland-Yutani. That idea was scrapped for two reasons: the Alien franchise was an R-rated franchise which made it a no-no for Disney park representation, and there was a concern that using the Xenomorph would make things TOO scary. It was probably the right move for the park’s image, but the ride ended up being very scary regardless and it became clear that Disney didn’t really know how to fit that into the promise of what the rest of the park offered.

The ride came out alongside the debut of New Tomorrowland, a very ’90s reimagining of that section of the Magic Kingdom. Mostly gone was the Walt-inspired approach of predicting the future in look, feel, and technology, replaced by a more amusement-park-ish celebration of rockets, lights and tubes.  A similar makeover was happening across the lake at EPCOT, too. Like the new design or hate it, it’s hard to argue that this new aesthetic did the task of branding a scary adult dark ride any favors.

Then there’s the documentary, probably the weirdest part of all of this. Disney-sponsored television specials in support of new parks or new rides were par for the course at this point, but this was something different. Instead of a Network prime time, star studded event, Disney instead commissioned an hourlong documentary focused on humanity’s encouters with alien life.  Titled “Alien Encounters from New Tomorrowland”, the special seemed meant to go viral, airing not in a high viewership slot on National television but instead late at night and on local cable outlets; the infomercial rotation.

This documentary takes a lot of interesting starting positions, the most striking of them being the fact that aliens have visited, aliens are still visiting, and something big is around the corner. Introduced by Michael Eisner, the special takes most of its time pointedly NOT talking about the new ride and instead relays historical accounts of UFO sightings, exhausts the Roswell story, and has interviews with several alien abductees who go into very un-Disney detail of their encounters.

When the special does get around to the ride, it positions the attraction as “preparing the public for cosmic contact with a virtual alien encounter”. Everything after that’s pretty standard ride-commercial stuff.  It’s an interesting line to straddle, making a “documentary” that fits the narrative of the world that the viewer would be in if they were ON the ride and then scheduling it on television as something to be discovered, but for some reason it just doesn’t really stick the landing.  Here it is:

 

The ride itself was similarly polarizing. Some liked the edgy adult experience, while others lamented its departure from the family-friendly Disney promise. The latter opinion won out, and the ride was softened up and turned into Stitch’s Great Escape in 2003.

Real talk: Stitch’s Great Escape is still too scary for me.

 

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USA Cartoon Express – Monster Bash (1993)

The USA Cartoon Express broke a lot of ground in the 1980s and 90s with its approach to a kids block. Tucked away on the then-still-nascent cable giant lived a one to two hour block, depending on where it was scheduled, that was all for kids.  The block was a full takeover of the network, a show of its own, a train ride where the network was the conductor and the cartoons were the passengers.

The USA Cartoon Express was a showcase for an impressive variety of cartoons; the Hanna Barbera library was a staple of the block, as were He-Man, Transformers, Alvin and The Chipmunks, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In between those heavy hitters were more obscure titles like Mighty Max and Savage Dragon. In between those shows, in addition to the train bumps, were shorter pieces created specifically for USA.  In a Minute segments featured real life and real kids answering real questions. The USA Network Kids Club gave viewers a chance to interact with the network and sometimes get featured on the block. All of this, all of this could warrant its own post but since we’re getting into spooky territory here now that it’s October let’s look at a series of custom shorts called Monster Bash.

The idea of all of the different types of monsters getting together and hanging out isn’t necessarily a new one, but Monster Bash brought a (then) new idea: Dracula owned a hotel with all of the other monsters and the difficulty of maintaining a hotel with all of those other monsters made for a handful of entertaining 30-second situations.

The staff are a weird mixture of adult monsters and child monsters.  The guests are never shown; the stories typically center around some aspect of hotel management that the staff has to resolve, with a minimal ‘monster’ layer thrown in.  They’re pretty good gags, all in all.  Check them out here!

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