Tuesday, September 14, 2010
In any decade, cute cuddly animals are a surefire win with young children. Their inherent appeal is in their big expressive eyes, their huggable nature, and their covetousness-inducing inflated sticker price. Toy manufacturers know that these cuddly critters will inevitably send young children into the throes of toy store-aisle ear-plugging, breath-holding temper tantrums, the embarrassment of which would surely motivate our parents into purchasing the overpriced fuzzball.
These toys were no exception, with their manufacturers incessantly and successfully peddling these big-eyed plush animals at us with every commercial break on Nickelodeon or during Saturday morning cartoons. Many became bona fide fad phenomena, impelling us to race to our nearest Toys ‘R Us to become the first on our block or classroom to own one of these little guys. Though they varied in cuteness from brand to brand, ownership of any of these animal fluffies was sure to garner you some playground credibility.
Is it a nightlight or is it a stuffed animal? Our clever friends at Hasbro showed us in 1982 that these two kid-friendly items were not necessarily mutually exclusive. Glo Worms served handily as both, with their plush bodies and enormous hard plastic light-up faces. They were cute, they were comforting, they were a little creepy.
Pound Puppies were such a phenomenon in the 80s and 90s that the original toy spawned an entertainment franchise, boasting an animated television show and feature-length film. Pound puppies had, unsurprisingly, a hangdog look to them--after all, they had presumably been languishing in the pound, hoping to be adopted. In the show, however, the puppies were far from helpless--they worked as a team to solve complex problems at the Puppy Pound. You know, just like in real life.
Even after so many years, this toy still strikes many of us as a bit disturbing. The concept is cute--your mother dog comes with an indeterminate number of puppies, so it’s an actual surprise when you slit ‘er open. On the practical side, though, it gave many young children a premature and medically inaccurate perception of childbirth. For a year or so, I thought that we simply reinserted babies back into their mother’s bellies for convenient storage at clean-up time.
Littlest Pet Shop
As the name implies, the Littlest Pet Shop toy line chronicles the daily lives and activities of the littlest pets in their very own shop. The original 90s versions came with all sorts of fun features, translating into numerous small parts for us to swallow or lose throughout the course of play. Some of the more novel versions came with fun features like rubber stamp pawprint functions or head bobbling abilities. As with most reimagined toy lines, the 2000s version released by Hasbro are decidedly more freakish-looking.
My Little Pony
My Little Pony was a veritable phenomenon in the 80s and 90s, with young girls everywhere scrambling to own one of these sparkly-haired plastic horses. They appealed to little girls’ sensibilities in all the basic ways: pastel colors, glitter, brushable hair, and horses. If you’ve ever met a little girl, it’s pretty clear Hasbro cooked up a fail-proof concept.
Who knew a parachute loaded with poly-fill could be so cuddly and lovable? The ad touts Puffalumps as “like marshmallow pillows, you can never squeeze too tight...You can’t hug a Puffalump wrong!” Well, that’s a relief. I constantly worry I’m showering my stuffed animals with affection in all the wrong ways. Whew.
I’m not sure if these can technically be classified as animals, but they are stuffed, so they’re going on the list. I had endless Popple paraphernalia in my youth, including some straight-to-VHS videos and a pop up tent. These ambiguous teddy bear-esque stuffies came in all varieties, including rock star and sports lover. A little something for everyone, you might say.
Care Bears were originally created as card characters by American Greetings, but their popularity led to their release as a toy line and later as popular animated characters. Each Care Bear boasted a tummy symbol, indicating exactly what it was that put the “care” in their status as official Care Bear.
Picture the characters from Littlest Pet Shop. Now stuff those adorable little critters into a too-small tank or cage. Smooshies may not have taught humane treatment, but I imagine our parents liked the compactness and easy storability.
Of course, no list of 90s stuffed animals could be complete without at least a cursory mention of the market-cornering fad-maker itself, TY’s Beanie Baby line. They served no function and weren’t even all that cuddly, but somehow TY convinced us these pellet-filled creatures had inherent value. They didn’t, of course, and the investment-minded among us 90s children are undoubtedly kicking ourselves over the poor market growth of our collections in recent years.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
No matter how frequently it happens, I’m always a bit surprised to see the critical thrashing taken by some of my favorite childhood movies. As a kid, my friends and I were convinced movies like Dunston Checks In was among the cinematic creme de la creme. A quick trip to aggregate ratings site Rottens Tomatoes reveals a different picture entirely; among the most positive comments is one claiming the film’s only redeeming quality is that it may possibly keep your children quiet and complacent for ninety minutes. Ouch.
As a general rule, puppets and animals are usually fail-safe stock characters with which to cast your children’s film. Not only do they come significantly cheaper than big name stars, their novelty casts a sort of unbreakable spell over impressionable children. While their accompanying adults may have been beating themselves over their heads with their own shoes to get through an hour and a half of monkey debauchery, children were gleefully taken in by the cuteness of cinema critters.
Dunston Checks In follows the adorable animal character formula pretty closely, though it does offer the semi-subverted trope twist of putting the animal protagonist on the side of the bad guys. Dunston is a cute orangutan, sure, but he ultimately is an accessory in the heist of some major jewels. I’m not sure what sort of criminal charges could be pressed against a monkey, but Dunston makes a good case for convicting simians.
Truthfully, the movie could be titled “random orangutan antics haphazardly arranged around a flimsy plot.” Dunston Checks In seems determined to insert its title monkey character into as many zany situations as possible, with little attention paid to common sense or anything related to real life situations. Of course, this is a children’s movie we’re talking about here, so that set up is not necessarily a bad thing. In many ways, this simplified plot model mash-up of Dunston’s gags and practical jokes is far more adept at holding children’s attention than a sensible linear plot could ever be.
Dunston Checks In focuses on upscale hotel owner Robert Grant (Jason Alexander), a widower with two young sons. Though the hotel is already rated at five stars, Grant finds out a six-star rating may soon be available. Determined to achieve the higher status, he sets out to vie for this new level of luxury validation.
In a classic case of 90s comedy misunderstanding, mysterious guest Lord Rutledge (Rupert Everett) is mistaken for the hotel inspector. Grant and Co. see Rutledge’s careful inspection of the hotel interior and assume him to be the incognito inspector, though in reality he is surveying the scene for a heist. I smell the onset of some hilarious hijinks.
Rutledge, for no better reason than to set up the shaky plot of a children’s movie, has an orangutan in tow who assists in carrying out his thievery missions. Dunston’s owner is less than hospitable to his monkey companion, leading the orangutan to flee to the hotel ducts and end up in the company of Grant’s sons Kyle and Brian. In turn, the boys try their best to convince the hotel staff about the ape on the premises, but Dunston’s impressive stealth makes him nearly invisible to the other hotel occupants.
As you can imagine, hilarity ensues--at least from a child’s perspective. An additional antagonist is stirred into the pot when Grant hires an exterminator (Paul Reubens) to take care of the hotel’s monkey problem. The film offers us a slew of further humorous misunderstandings, ultimately culminating in some family-friendly semi-schmaltzy but generally sweet sentimentality.
Dunston Checks In isn’t high art by any means, but many children of the 90s will still probably tune in for the nostalgia value when the movie is on TV. Like most family comedies, the humor serves to delight the easily amused children while hopefully not offending any of the parents in attendance. Even as an adult, though, there’s something sort of charming about a major animal character--no matter what he does, it’s sort of cute and funny. The story would never have made it past script screeners if Dunston was a person, but as an orangutan he’s got just about enough cuteness capital to win us over.