The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987) — Gross, weird, and inexplicable

“I’m too happy to die!”

Justin’s rating: Just call me “Disgustin’ Justin”

Justin’s review: There’s nothing more alluring than the taboo of a pop culture fad that your parents forbid you, in no uncertain terms, upon the pain of death and grounding, from participating in. So naturally, all of us kids in the 1980s were irresistibly drawn to the grotesque world of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards. It’s one of my strangely happy memories from that time, looking through friends’ card collections and feeling like I was looking at something borderline risqué.

The GPK were just about one of the greatest fads of the ’80s for kids, and that is saying a LOT. Okay, maybe not more than Transformers or G.I. Joe, but every boy I knew at least horded a pack or two somewhere from their parents, ready to pull them out and impress friends, royalty, and — you never know, but he’s a guy, so it can’t be ruled out — the Pope.

Capitalizing off the crazy success of the cutsie Cabbage Patch Dolls that were all the rage, in 1985 the Topps company came out with a pseudo-parody series of cards/stickers that were everything the adorable CPD were not: gross, nasty, morbid, sick, and absolutely cool. Each card in a Garbage Pail Kids pack featured a (usually alliteratively-titled) kid, who’s name would pair up with the picture to spotlight an obvious deformity, accident, death or other misfortune. You really can’t believe how vile some of the cards got — electrocution, scalping, cannibalism, mutilations, every bodily liquid spewing, Celine Dion — but it was okay, because all of the kids smiled no matter what. They were pretty funny. And that made it acceptable.

Right before the makers of Cabbage Patch Kids sued Topps for copyright infringement (which actually happened), filmmakers capitalized off of the fleeting success of the cards and spun out a movie that just trips over its feet again and again trying to find its footing. Kind of charming, in its own way, but also tedious, weird, and (to pull a phrase off of my report card) “does not live up to potential.”

There are many problems — such as the terrible GPK costumes that were just huge heads on small actors that only allowed for two mouth positions — but the biggest of which is that the actual cards had no real backstory to them, no greater plot, just individual vignettes of cheery woe and vomit. They could’ve easily gone with the ultra-dark R-rating, flagging at least a couple dozen unsupervised children who slipped into the theater for permanent psychosis, or they could’ve really lovied these things up and gone the Care Bears route.

Instead, there’s this weird middling process going on through the film; it’s capable of some surprisingly black comedy and adult themes, but mostly shoots for a kiddy attitude that follows a completely nonsensical plot. Maybe it’s smarter and more subversive than I realize, but I can’t help but think that any GPK fan would’ve been very let down to see their favorite cards be traded in for cheap slapstick gags and horrible voice dubbing.

They even wussed out with the seven selected GPK, all of which are just sort of icky and none even suggestive of the infamous death-n-demise that ran rampant through the card series. We have Valorie Vomit (who only upchucks once, for shame), the eyeball-eating Ali Gator, ’50s thug Greaser Greg, always-peeing Nat Nerd, Windy Winston (who makes up for Valorie by farting nonstop), mucousy Messy Tessie, and the big baby Foul Phil. Wow. Inspiring.

The basic — REALLY basic — story is that there’s a retired magician (Anthony Newley, the only competent actor in this disaster) who keeps an antique shop and is the guardian of a garbage pail full of obviously-not-inspired-by-Gremlins freaks. Where they come from, no one knows, and the movie even waffles on that point. It suggests that the GPK are both from outer space and also some sort of ancient curse. Who knows?

The magician’s shop assistant is a precocious wimp named Dodger (always good to name kids after baseball teams these days, I plan to name mine Cubs and Mariners) who’s being hounded by an adult gang for his lunch money (?), and who likes one of the gang girls in return (??). Dodger is also a never-ending idiot for the sake of the story, so he knocks over the garbage pail, frees the Kids, and becomes their new dearest friend who doesn’t run away from them screaming only to return later with an arc welder.

Since the girl Dodger likes — her name’s Tangerine, in case you wondered where all the good names have gone — is really into designing clothes, Dodger gets the Kids to whip up their own rad styles to impress the love of his life. Never mind he’s young enough to really be considered jailbait for her, or that the GPK target audience doesn’t give a fig about designing dresses, it’s the way it goes!

There’s also another dumb and unresolved plot about how the GPK are trying to find all five million of their friends, presumably locked up in the State Home For The Ugly (urgh). Not to spoil anything for you, but the other kids (for sake of the costume budget) are never found, and the magician briefly alludes that they were all thrown into a garbage truck and crushed to death. Really. Really and truly.

In between all of this weighty plot, the GPK pad it out by going out on town and doing “hijinks”. They’re all very dumb hijinks, many involving doing whatever their primary gross function is, and you actually grow fond of the magician and his ability to make a scene partway bearable.

It’s just one of the more bizarre entries from the ’80s that obviously bombed, but nostalgic pop culture and its sideshow freak status keep it kicking, in a “Can you BELIEVE they made that?” offhand conversational topic. While not a good movie in any respect, it’s probably excellent mocking fodder if you’re looking for something uniquely ’80s that reeks — in more ways than one.

Didja notice?

  • Interstellar garbage cans… okay. I can accept that.
  • The GPK have magic powers to annoy
  • The AWESOME ’80s adult thugs chasing down — for no good reason — a young kid in a populated park in broad daylight
  • The magician has scary big eyebrows, and is the kind of guy who has a speech or quote for everything
  • Her name’s TANGERINE? And she hasn’t joined a convent yet?
  • Hair sniffing’s kinda creepy there, kid.
  • The cheesiest fight ever
  • No, it’s not incredibly wrong of you to be a young boy who takes a bath in the middle of a room completely naked while an older gentleman and a number of mutated freaks watch on. Why do you ask?
  • He’s like a foot shorter and ten years younger than her… of course he has a chance!
  • Everyone wears stripper pants just in case someone pulls at them
  • The very bad Pepsi advertising
  • The GPK think the height of fashion is bullfighter’s costumes
  • Ah great. A musical number. Well, I’m in hell.
  • “Non Union Sweat Shop”
  • “The Toughest Bar In The World”
  • The clips from the Three Stooges are honestly the funniest things in this flick
  • What’s up with the toe biting?
  • “State Home For The Ugly”… my tax dollars fund this? I’m okay with that.
  • Ghandi

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