Billion Dollar Babies:
"It tells the story of the Cabbage Patch Kids and how they set the wheels in motion for modern-day Black Friday."
OUR MOVIE REVIEW:
Whether you love them, or hate them, chances are you grew up with a Cabbage Patch Kid in your house. It might not have been yours, or it might have been yours and you just tell everyone that it’s your little sister’s to save face. The bottom line is that Cabbage Patch Kids have plagued households with their paradoxical creepy cuteness for decades. While we all know what they are, their history has been somewhat of a mystery…until now.
This week, the documentary Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids premiered at the Tribeca Festival. Directed by Andrew Jenks, it breaks down the truth about where the dolls came from, how quickly they became hot commodities, and the impact they had on the country as a whole.
Now, some people might remember Jenks from MTV. Right as the network started to lean more into reality television and before it became home for Ridiculousness (literally), he had a docuseries called World of Jenks. Think of it as “Humans of New York” before “Humans of New York” and anywhere besides New York. Although it only lasted for two seasons, it was both profound and groundbreaking storytelling. I say all that to preface my point that, despite the doc’s somewhat silly subject matter, it’s very informative and thought-provoking.
The story begins with the introduction of the void that existed in the toy industry between the late 1970s and early 1980s. Now, there were numerous toys for kids to play with, but none of them were designed to make a kid feel special. Enter Xavier Roberts and his crazy idea that he could create dolls as unique as the children who played with them. The company originated from a fake hospital where kids could adopt “babies” of their own. Each baby would have a different hair texture, or eye color, or skin color. That promise of a toy that could not be copied set the mania in motion.
One of the best things about the documentary is the fact that we get an oral history of the company from Roberts himself. Being known as quite the eccentric company owner, it was genuinely a surprise to see him appear and to see him happily discuss highs and the lows of his success. When it comes to the copyright issues Roberts ran into with the dolls and allegations about the idea being stolen, he’s very candid. That’s one of the most admirable moments in the documentary because it hearkens back to the film’s titular promise: to tell the truth.
Roberts is joined by other executives who oversaw the dolls in the early years, such as Roger L. Schlaifer. The film combines newer interviews with older ones, as well as archival footage from when the dolls were first released. All of those elements weaved together really do transport you to the era and make you feel like you’re watching the craze unfold in real time.
Neil Patrick Harris narrates the film. While it feels like he’s at a bit of a nostalgic time in his life - between this and 8-Bit Christmas - he captures the tone of this story perfectly, especially as it evolves into a serious self-reflection of America’s values. On one (cloth) hand, the film is a fun exploration of the country’s Cabbage Patch Kids craze, but beneath the fabric it’s an eye-opening account of how consumerism has only changed for the worse. One of the best examples of the negative impact the dolls had is when it’s revealed that they may also actually be responsible for the Black Friday craze. In a montage of news reports from the first year the doll was released, you see just how far people were willing to go to get the doll at Christmas time.
Despite being consistently entertaining and educational, one thing missing from the film is the timeline of the dolls after the craze up until today. Sure, the dolls are still popular, but one thing I personally can’t get my head around is “Why?” With the absence of that information, the film leaves it up to you to decide whether the country still values the uniqueness the dolls promise, or if the dolls have just become a surrogate for a much uglier idol.
[Prior to the film’s premiere at the festival, Director Andrew Jenks sat down with our very own Dempsey Pillot to chat about it. In the interview they spoke about how the film came together, Neil Patrick Harris’ involvement and more! Listen HERE]