TV Weekend; Drew Barrymore Stars in 'Babes in Toyland'
by John J. O'Connor
CLIVE DONNER, the British director, has come up with one television ''classic'' in the production of ''A Christmas Carol,'' starring George C. Scott as Scrooge. He is evidently trying for a second with ''Babes in Toyland,'' the new three-hour movie having its debut on NBC tonight at 8. Made in West Germany as a co-production of the Finnegan/Pinchuk Company, Orion Television and Bavaria Atelier G.m.b.H., this is still another reworking of the operetta by Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough.
Say this for the new effort: it is no worse than the 1961 movie that starred Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello. That one lasted 105 minutes. On the other hand, Mr. Donner's ambitious production is not nearly as diverting as the 1934 Laurel and Hardy interpretation. That one originally ran for 79 minutes. Perhaps when it comes to certain kinds of ''family entertainment,'' less really is more.
At any rate, this new version has been written by Paul Zindel, the playwright and author of children's books, and features several new songs by Leslie Bricusse, whose past credits include the equally forgettable score for the film ''Dr. Doolittle'' (someone has had the good sense to retain Herbert's ''Toyland'' and ''March of the Wooden Soldiers''). The story opens in Cincinnati on Christmas Eve. A blizzard is in progress and 11-year-old Lisa Piper (Drew Barrymore) is worried about her stranded mother (Eileen Brennan) and the rest of the family. Going to warn her sister Margaret (Jill Schoelen), who is working at the local toy store, Lisa has a run-in with the nasty store manager, Bernie (Richard Mulligan). Heading home with Margaret, Margaret's boyfriend Alex (Keanu Reeves) and his pal Jim (Googy Gress), Lisa falls out of the car and bumps her head, which is the cue for the scene to shift to the childlike fantasy world of Toyland.
Wandering through the candy-cane streets crowded with characters from Mother Goose and other tales, Lisa finds her family and friends in new guises. Her sister and boyfriend have become Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary and Jack Be Nimble. Mom appears as dizzy Mother Hubbard, while Jim is pudgy Georgie Porgie. And then, snarling and slobbering for all he's worth, there is nasty Bernie, now transformed into the evil Barnaby Barnacle, accompanied at all times by two creepy clowns named Zack and Mack (who just about steal what's left of the show).
Old Barnaby, it seems, is determined to marry young Mary and cheat noble Jack out of his rightful inheritance. When crossed, Barnaby is fearful, threatening to destroy Toyland with his gruesome friends from the Forest of Night. Skipping cheerfully to the rescue, Lisa enlists the aid of the venerable and wise Toymaster, toymaker to Santa Claus. He is played by Pat Morita, black-belt master of ''The Karate Kid.''
The missing ingredient is charm. Everybody seems to be going through his paces on automatic pilot. Miss Barrymore, saddled with lines like ''Oh, wow, what nifty cars!,'' is likable and does her best to smile sincerely. If Liberace had a granddaughter, I suspect she would look like Miss Barrymore. Miss Brennan, aware of her gooey surroundings, reverts to camp in the manner of her long-ago triumph as ''Little Mary Sunshine.'' Mr. Mulligan, all done up in hideously long fingernails, starts out on a level of villainous hysterics and stays there. Mr. Gress seems positively bored. And Mr. Reeves, who in earlier television appearances this year was impressive as a young alcoholic (''Under the Influence'') and a psychotic killer (''Act of Violence''), looks understandably embarrassed each time he is required to join in another dreary song.
While managing to portray most grownups as either hopelessly silly or monstrously conniving, this ''Babes in Toyland'' eventually lumbers into its message of wisdom: all will be well ''if you can see with the eyes of a child.'' Keep the child in you alive, we are told, and you will never grow old. Becoming exasperated, of course, is something else again.