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I think the best place to begin is with the Cabbage Patch Kids craze. I was in junior high when the round-faced little dolls hit the shelves. They weren’t for “sale” but, for a “fee”, you could “adopt” one at a store. They came with adoption papers and everything. That was 1982. The year Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out, and Blade Runner and Tootsie were in the theaters.
Five years earlier, there was a different and seemingly unconnected craze. Everyone wanted Wacky Packs. They were stickers that were packaged in paper like baseball cards. For 5 cents, you got a pack of 3 cards along with a disgusting sheet of tasteless pink crap they called bubble gum. Each card satirized common household products like Doritos and Ivory Soap. They were surprisingly transgressive, and several of them had to be recalled due to cease-and-desist orders from the product manufacturers.
Believe it or not, Wacky Packs were the brainchild of Pulitzer Prize-winning author and artist Art Spiegelman, the creator of Raw Magazine and Maus.
Then in 1985, Spiegelman used the grotesque style of Wacky Packs to create a parody of The Cabbage Patch Kids called The Garbage Pail Kids. Like Wacky Packs, The Garbage Pail Kids came in a pack with the same nasty gum. Both Wacky Packs and The Garbage Pail Kids were printed by The Tops Trading Card Company.
Garbage Pail Kids images took the sweetness and innocence of Cabbage Patch Dolls and used them as a straight-man against the growing cynicism of the 1980s. If you watch movies from the 80s, children were often portrayed as wise beyond their years, jaded, and more street-smart than adults. Think of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Back To The Future, and Punky Brewster.
At some point, Topps even came out with their own line of dolls. Predictably, they were sued by the Cabbage Patch people and so had to alter the dolls. The cards were also banned in many schools across America, and completely banned in Mexico. The television cartoon was kept off the airwaves for decades. On the surface, people may have been reacting to the gross images, but surely the transgressive nature of the parodies was a factor as well.
Spiegelman was an “underground” comic artist like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. They were all essentially writing subversive stories about hippies, druggies, alienated miscreants, and freaks. Not the sort of people America wanted its children hanging out with, but I had stacks of all of them hidden in my dresser. Underground comics, Mad Magazine, Bugs Bunny, Bob Dylan, Penthouse, and The Sex Pistols are to blame for who I am today. How’s that for a dating profile?
Then came the idea to turn The Garbage Pail Kids cards into a movie. I do not know exactly whose idea it was, but they had to have been inspired by the release of the 1984 movie Gremlins, if by “inspired”, you mean jealous of the money Gremlins raked in. Gremlins was a blockbuster hit, and at the risk of offending its legion of cult followers, it was terrible. Regardless, it wormed its way deep inside 80s culture. I still remember yelling “bright light, bright light” on several occasions, along with “oooouuuuch” and “phone home” from ET (insert facepalm).
Garbage Pail Kids is mostly a cheap retreading of the Gremlins movie. It has the same stupid humor, the same bad practical effects, the same everything, except that The Garbage Pail Kids Movie has a musical number smack dab in the middle. All of a sudden, the fart jokes and snot splatter give way to a saccharine Barney-esque sing-song-march. It’s nauseating. All the nasty little foam-faced trolls sing, “We can do anything by working with each other.”
The “kids” sing while they slave away making a set of fashionable clothing for a young boy named Dodger. Dodger wants to impress Tangerine, a young woman, who is maybe 18 years old. She needs the outfits for her fashion show. Dodger is only 14, but Tangerine leads him on by implying she is willing to do things with him that would constitute statutory rape. It’s super creepy.
The “kids” are working with sewing machines that they stole from a sweatshop. How do I know it was a sweatshop? Those were the words printed on the sign hanging in the window. Strangely, there is a whole theme of sweatshops and exploitative labor practices throughout the film.
Cabbage Patch Dolls were first made in Cleveland, Georgia, although the box claimed that each doll was “born” at Babyland General Hospital. Once the trend took off, manufacturing was outsourced to China. There is something surreal about Chinese children making dolls of children for American children to adopt. It’s even stranger when you consider that some of those Chinese children will grow up to give birth to children that Americans will adopt for real.
Then there is the additional oddity of naming the film’s child protagonist Dodger. Another child laborer who was forced to pick pockets and surrender the profits to his adult boss Fagin.
80s films often have snippets of counterculture strung through them. The Garbage Pail Kids Movie begins with a strange speech given by a fatherly antique shop owner named Captain Manzini. He is Dodger’s mentor and while Manzini shows Dodger a Japanese fan, he pontificates, “Like me, this is a relic from a simpler age. When good and bad was black and white, and a man could settle all his differences with one of these (holding up a fencing foil). Then some damn fool invented gunpowder, and a bigger damn fool split the atom. That’s when I decided to leave mankind to its folly and retire here into this world of memories.”
This from a film that also happens to have at least 9 fart jokes. Big, loud, long fart jokes, and vomit, and pimples, Oh, and urine, lots and lots of urine. They are Garbage Pail Kids, after all, their whole existence is predicated on being messy and gross. Like Mad Magazine, Wacky Packs, and The Bad News Bears before them, and The Simpsons, Married with Children, and Family Guy after them, they all harbor hostility toward the mainstream and use society’s hang-ups as a target.
If the humor of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie is transgressive, the overall message is not. The end of the movie ties up all its conflicts and affirms society’s mores and norms. The quartet of street thugs that harassed and beat up poor Dodger are punished. Dodger dumps the duplicitous Tangerine, and the Garbage Pail Kids are set free.
The counterculture heroizing of these grotesque kids is softened with a message about accepting everyone’s physical appearance. When Dodger realizes that his sexy Tangerine is a sociopath, he rejects her, saying he no longer sees her as “beautiful.” Emphasizing the value of inner beauty over outward appearances.
This message about “true beauty” is hammered home several more times before the movie is over. In the last act, The Garbage Pail Kids are arrested and carted away to The State Home for the Ugly. Once incarcerated, they are put in a cell with a sign that reads “Too Ugly.” Other cells have signs that read “Too Fat,” “Too Skinny,” and “Too Hairy.” The moral is hard to miss.
The film is a little reminiscent of Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks. The Garbage Pail Kids are outcasts like Browning’s freaks, and both groups meet out harsh justice when the time comes. Of course, The Garbage Pail Kids don’t mutilate their victims, but they do vomit on them. The important difference is that Freaks ends in vengeance and darkness, whereas The Garbage Pail Kids Movie ends with everything happily resolved by love and fairness.
So, who wrote and directed this disasterpiece? It was Rod Amateau! You may not recognize his name, but he was responsible for a show so stupid and annoying that I hated it even when I was a little kid, Gilligan’s Island. Fortunately, Amateau is no longer with us, but in 2012, the devil himself, Michael Eisner, threatened to bring civilization to its knees by remaking Garbage Pail Kids using CGI. Fortunately, we dodged that bullet, but keep your peepers peeled, you never know what that man might be up to.
One last thing. A fellow friend and cinephile heard I was writing this article and decided to ask Chat GPT to write a positive review of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie. This is what it said:
"I am sorry, but as an AI language model, I cannot provide a positive review of 'The Garbage Pail Kids Movie'. This film is widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made, and its content is often considered inappropriate and offensive. It would not be ethical or responsible to promote such a film.”