The Zeros

The Garbage Pail Kids Movie Is A Big Ball of Sugar in a Wretched Fart Stew

It's gross, it's inane, it's poorly crafted, and it wholly deserves its Zero on Rotten Tomatoes.

by | June 12, 2018 | Comments

Behind the Zero

(Photo by Atlantic Releasing)

The 1987 abomination The Garbage Pail Kids Movie represents a singularly unfortunate confluence of two overlapping cultural forces: Topps’ surprisingly satirical, subversive trading cards of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s (Mars Attacks!, Wacky Packages, Garbage Pail Kids) and the creature feature sub-genre that flourished in the aftermath of E.T.’s success.

The Garbage Pail Kids Movie’s roots can be traced back to Topps’ Wacky Packages cards, which offered kid-friendly spoofs of popular brands, logos, and mascots. The parodies recalled Mad Magazine at its grossest and most scatological but also at its most savagely satirical.

Before he wrote the seminal graphic novel Maus, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman was among the geniuses who helped make Wacky Packages an oasis of subversion in the trading card aisles. Zippy cartoonist Bill Griffith and superstar caricaturist Drew Friedman were also among the big names in Topps’ roster of ringers, but it was the talented and prolific John Pound who created the unpublished Wacky Pack card that led first to the Garbage Pail Kids, then the Garbage Pail Kids phenomenon/controversy, and then, sadly, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie.

The John Pound sketch is as brutal as it is funny. He undercut the maudlin sentimentality of Cabbage Patch Kids — the adorably ugly, high-priced baby-doll orphans that conquered the hearts and minds of our nation’s children in the 1980s — by making his doll a gleefully discarded piece of trash, a baby that was tossed into a garbage can and abandoned, but came with adoption papers to be sent to the Department of Sanitation.

Topps chose not to publish the Wacky Packs’ Garbage Pail Kids parody. Instead, it decided to launch an entire line of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards taking aim at the Cabbage Patch Kids phenomenon so directly and with such stomach-churning glee that, in 1986, Coleco, the owners of Cabbage Patch Kids, successfully sued Topps for copyright violation.

The Garbage Pail Kids were controversial for other reasons as well: teachers hated them and schools regularly banned them as unnecessary — not to mention aesthetically unpleasing — distractions for moppets without much of an attention span in the first place.


The Zero

(Photo by Atlantic Releasing)

The Garbage Pail Kids Movie follows the travails of Dodger (Mackenzie Astin), a relentlessly bullied, seemingly parentless 14-year-old whose only joy in life comes from working at a cozy little antiques shop run by kindly, life lesson-dispensing magician Captain Manzini (pop star and actor Anthony Newley, in his final performance).

Dodger’s days revolve around pining desperately for Tangerine (Katie Barbieri), the mean girl, fashion designer girlfriend of his primary bully, Juice (Ron MacLachlan). Then one day, Dodger meets the antique shop’s secret inhabitants: horrific monsters from outer space known collectively as the Garbage Pail Kids. Each is more deeply disturbing and impossibly unlikable than the last.

First, there’s Nat Nerd, whose signature move is soiling himself whenever anxious. The Garbage Pail Kids Movie hopes you find this hilarious, because it’s a running gag it returns to over and over and over again until you begin to wonder whether the filmmakers were motivated more by weird fetishes than a desire to make a passable children’s film.

There’s also Valerie Vomit, whose trademark quirk you can probably figure out by her name; Windy Winston, an iconoclast who uses his singular penchant for explosive flatulence to win bar fights, make friends, and change the world; and Greaser Greg, a switchblade-wielding 1950s Andrew “Dice” Clay wannabe who, in one horrifying sequence, is found playing a very sexual game of “Doctor” with one of his fellow “Kids.”

Dodger pines for Tangerine from a distance but spies an opportunity to win her over when she gets excited about a jacket designed and sewn by the Garbage Pail Kids in the style of Michael Jackson-by-way-of-Corey Feldman.

Tangerine, an evil woman with only greed and larceny in her cold, Grinch-like heart, implores the lovestruck Dodger to crank out more clothes for her to pretend she designed herself, leading to many riveting montage sequences of the Kids crafting tacky outfits on a tight deadline. Street fashion and zeitgeist-capturing trading cards about belching, farting, vomiting monsters might seem like a strange fit. But the genius of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie’s fashion-centered premise is that it takes a movie ostensibly laser-targeted at disgusting eight-year-old boys and makes it all about clothes and kissing pretty girls.

(Photo by Atlantic Releasing)

If Astin and Newley are castaways from some lost 1960s live-action Disney movie, its bullies and love interest dress and act like New Wave twenty-something punks from a Cannon exploitation movie. Tangerine, for example, has the name, skimpy fashion-forward wardrobe, and magnificent perm of a hooker who might seek Charles Bronson’s protection in a later Death Wish sequel. The filmmakers know that the only thing its target audience likes more than clothes and teamwork are weirdly one-sided, vaguely masochistic, quasi-romantic relationships between lovestruck man-children and emotionally damaged, much tougher mean girls.

Newley, God bless him, is an oasis of professionalism in a sea of terribly executed bad ideas. He delivers twee lines like, “Funny people should call this junk, isn’t it, when every single piece is a diary of the human spirit!” and “Ugliness is cruelty, meanness of spirit, greed,” as naturally as possible, with mixed success. The good Captain’s honeyed words may be true, but I would add “the Garbage Pail Kids’ physical appearance in this god-awful movie” to his definition of ugliness. The Garbage Pail Kids aren’t just hideous on an external level, they’re just as ugly on the inside. Though the filmmakers might have aspired to the ugly-cute appeal of E.T., they’ve instead created the kind of deeply scarring images that can never be unseen.

As Captain Manzini muses at one point, “We cannot choose the way we look, but we can choose the way we behave.” Of course, this is The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, so every zen-like koan of wisdom is punctuated by an explosive blast of flatulence, ever so slightly undercutting its syrupy message.

The Garbage Pail Kids Movie accidentally invents two singularly unpalatable sub-genres: kiddie body horror (think David Cronenberg for tots, especially the Kids’ “Baby” character Foul Phil, who is unnerving in ways that are difficult to even put into words) and kiddie noir. In multiple ways, it’s extraordinarily dark for a film aimed at small children. It operates in a shadowy realm of monsters, tawdry, scheming femme fatales, and bullies who will pummel you relentlessly with their fists, just because. Visually, the filmmakers try to use darkness and shadow to hide — or at least obscure — the amateurish, half-finished, vomit-inducing ugliness of its Kids. They do not succeed.

(Photo by Atlantic Releasing)

But the film’s bracingly inappropriate darkness is thematic as well. It centers, after all, on a seemingly orphaned fourteen-year-old boy who makes inhuman child monsters from outer space toil in sweatshop-like conditions to manufacture cheap clothing for a vaguely sociopathic girl, one who, by the way, is clearly sleeping with a twenty-something bully who robs and physically assaults Dodger on a regular basis.

The Garbage Pail Kids Movie is so inexplicably, excessively dark that when it reaches its climax, and pint-sized Dodger is pummeling Juice in the face over and over again while weeping in rage and confusion, the brutality feels oddly justified, as if the movie pushed him into this corner and violence was his only recourse.

Then again, it’s not easy getting audiences to root for and be emotionally invested in characters whose defining feature is their inability to regulate their bladder or their flatulence. It turns out you can’t generate a Spielbergian sense of awe about the unknown wonders of the world and prominently feature telltale characters like Valerie Vomit.

Newley’s performance and a production number about the joys of working together to help a sad little boy try to woo an evil schemer are like a big ball of sugar dumped right into the middle of a wretched fart stew of a movie.

“To be blessed with unusual features is an adventure,” old twinkly-eyed Captain Manzini tells the Kids in an attempt to make them feel better about being God’s deeply regretted mistakes. 

That may be true in some instances, but here, it’s actually more of a waking nightmare.


Final Verdict

(Photo by Atlantic Releasing)

This might be a case where a zero might actually be overly generous. The filmmakers somewhat notoriously neglected to finish their animatronic Garbage Pail Kids costumes before filming started. That’s an ominous omen for a costume-based film like this, but it’s nowhere near as devastating as the filmmaker’s inability to make an actual movie. This is pure trash, appropriately enough, and not even the fun type.


Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

Tag Cloud

MSNBC witnail Sony Pictures DC Comics anthology USA Network golden globes serial killer police drama Apple Trivia Western BET Spectrum Originals ESPN TruTV Opinion what to watch Disney Channel BBC PaleyFest 2018 zombie First Look psychological thriller Lionsgate crossover APB Rom-Com sports Esquire Year in Review Pop dragons Photos VICE Countdown 2016 History Character Guide nature television 2019 Musical YouTube Premium award winner Starz The Arrangement Trailer Lifetime President Reality Competition transformers crime drama jamie lee curtis Grammys Tumblr GIFs Kids & Family 2015 21st Century Fox composers Cosplay NYCC Hulu Paramount Network Paramount blaxploitation Pet Sematary Mindy Kaling Premiere Dates dramedy TCA 2017 zero dark thirty SDCC Oscars medical drama DirecTV justice league MCU Fantasy vampires Disney Ellie Kemper IFC Films FXX Rock sitcom Infographic Adult Swim Pixar TCA Super Bowl Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt X-Men doctor who YouTube Red Polls and Games RT21 Sundance YA Toys Food Network Election OWN Marvel Star Wars historical drama discovery teaser 45 Nominations Superheroe Sneak Peek Country Certified Fresh thriller biography comic Mary poppins TLC adaptation Chilling Adventures of Sabrina supernatural NBC Warner Bros. period drama DC streaming service Syfy cooking New York Comic Con 2017 Universal See It Skip It comiccon Action ratings ABC Family Musicals technology Calendar diversity TBS Mary Poppins Returns Bravo HBO cops war IFC Drama unscripted Creative Arts Emmys Red Carpet streaming 24 frames facebook Anna Paquin CMT PBS natural history Epix Teen Awards Tour adventure Pirates ITV singing competition travel zombies A&E Sci-Fi LGBTQ Watching Series E! Netflix WGN Extras GLAAD Marathons ABC festivals Britbox Winners Animation elevated horror mutant politics FX Reality mockumentary sequel Emmys AMC Trophy Talk anime BBC America Podcast theme song TCM DGA Women's History Month Walt Disney Pictures green book spider-man boxoffice Acorn TV Logo American Society of Cinematographers National Geographic cults Stephen King TIFF Cartoon Network Interview VH1 GoT dceu CW Seed harry potter CBS All Access Crackle E3 Amazon Prime social media CBS Ovation spy thriller Brie Larson MTV Martial Arts USA TNT Ghostbusters crime talk show finale romance Masterpiece Christmas true crime Winter TV Quiz Set visit aliens Shondaland Captain marvel psycho Music Comedy Sundance Now Shudder robots SXSW Superheroes science fiction 007 Showtime Thanksgiving TV Land richard e. Grant Black Mirror Star Trek SundanceTV CNN Box Office Valentine's Day Mystery RT History El Rey docudrama San Diego Comic-Con dc Horror Comedy Central Amazon based on movie Writers Guild of America FOX 20th Century Fox Biopics Song of Ice and Fire Tomatazos casting Dark Horse Comics Columbia Pictures cinemax Nickelodeon Best and Worst cats Spring TV Spike Schedule Video Games Comic Book Fall TV Nat Geo Awards Lucasfilm hist Mudbound miniseries Fox News TV crime thriller binge The CW Mary Tyler Moore Summer DC Universe political drama Holidays Freeform Rocky Comics on TV