The first PG-13 film released by the Walt Disney Company under its Touchstone banner was Chris Columbus’ Adventures in Babysitting (1987); a delightfully adolescent romp through the seedy byways and dark alleys of inner city Chicago. A whacky sendup to the classic Hollywood screwball, revamped though never watered down for the teenage set, the film also launched Elizabeth Shue’s movie career. In retrospect Adventures in Babysitting successfully straddles a very curious artistic chasm; situated somewhere between Martin Scorsese’s thoroughly bizarre After Hours and Richard Donner’s pre-teen action/adventure yarn, The Goonies (both released in 1985).
Like After Hours, Adventures in Babysitting’s central protagonist Chris Parker (Elizabeth Shue) is the proverbial fish out of water. She is thrust by a whim of fate into circumstances she must conquer in order to mature her perspectives on love and life. Like The Goonies, Adventures in Babysitting presents its prepubescent heroes with challenges that need to be overcome. Some are genuinely harrowing (like the group’s escape from auto body chop-shop henchmen); other’s ridiculously improbable (surviving a rumble between two rival gangs). In all, each new experience becomes a trial by fire for the group. They emerge in the end with a greater sense of themselves, a strengthening of their bond in friendship and a sincere comprehension of their abilities to face the uncompromising world beyond their cloistered, middle-class suburb of Oak Park.
In hindsight, Adventures in Babysitting is the ideal film for the Touchstone banner; unobtrusively fun and good natured. With the creation of Touchstone Pictures in 1984 the Walt Disney Company discovered its own safety zone where they could explore more adult themes in their movie-making. It may seem ludicrous, but the Disney name is so closely associated with ‘family films’ that any attempt to deviate from that wholesomeness under the ‘Disney’ banner has proven all but lethal for the company brand during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Regrettably, at the same time Disney’s wholesome approach to storytelling was met with tepid box office. Adventures in Babysitting therefore represents something of a compromise between these two irreconcilable worlds; adult enough in theme and tone to bring in the teen and early twenty-something set, but still friendly enough to be considered ‘safe’ entertainment by their parents.
We open with an exuberant seventeen year old Chris Parker mouthing the words to The Crystals’ ‘And Then He Kissed Me’ and why not? It’s a big night for Chris. She’s about to celebrate her one year anniversary dating jock, Mike Todwell (Bradley Whitford). But Mike has an unwelcome surprise for our starry eyed heroine. His sister’s come down with the flu and is ‘contagious’ – at least so Mike tells Chris. Since his parents are away he’s responsible for her wellbeing.
Understandably disappointed, Chris has an even bigger disaster ahead of her. It seems that the Andersons (Dan Ziskie and Linda Sorensen) need someone to sit for them in a hurry. Fifteen year old Brad (Keith Coogan) and eight year old Sara (Maia Brewton) aren’t a handful so it shouldn’t be too tragic – even if it wasn’t the evening Chris had planned. Only Chris’ best friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller) has made a bad decision by trying to run away from home. On her limited allowance she’s made it as far as the downtown bus depot where she is currently being terrorized by a few harmless homeless people. She needs Chris to come and pick her up.
Swearing Brad and Sara to secrecy for taking them into the city (something she promised their parents she would never do), Chris’ road trip is further complicated by the arrival of Brad’s best friend, Darryl Coopersmith (Anthony Rapp). Finagling his invite into the city, Darryl has also brought along his father’s current issue of Playboy magazine whose playmate of the month looks an awful lot like Chris. Somewhere along the highway, Brad panics and ditches the Playboy. How will Darryl ever explain that one to pops? But that’s the least of everyone’s worries. Because just a few miles up the road Chris gets a flat. Thankfully, all is not lost.
Loveable trucker, ‘Handsome’ John Pruitt (John Ford Noonan), who wears a prosthetic hook for a hand that was popped off by a big rig some years before, arrives on the scene. He offers to tow Chris and her adolescent entourage to Dawson’s garage and pay for a new rubber. Unfortunately, en route to the garage Pruitt learns from a fellow trucker on the CB that his wife (Charlene Shipp) is having an extramarital affair with a travelling salesman (Rick Goldman). Obsessed with catching them in the act Pruitt barrels off the main road into a seedy neighbourhood. He finds the couple and attempts to shoot the salesman with a gun from his glove compartment. Instead, he mistakenly shoots a bullet through the front windshield of Chris’ car.
Chris, Brad, Sara and Darryl escape this exchange of gunfire by ducking into the backseat of the salesman’s Cadillac, presently being carjacked by professional thief, Joe Gipp (Calvin Levels). Gipp takes his captives to a chop-shop hidden somewhere in the industrial district. But he makes Chris a promise to deliver them safely home. Unfortunately, Joe’s bosses, Graydon (Ron Canada) and Bleak (John Davis Chandler) have other plans.
Chris, Brad, Sara and Darryl are locked in an upstairs office where Darryl discovers another copy of the Playboy magazine. What he fails to notice is that this one has orders scribbled down for stolen cars. Tucking the mag into his trousers, Darryl and the rest escape through a hole in the roof of the warehouse. They are hunted down by Bleak and Graydon, but take refuge in a local jazz club where B.B. King and his band are vamping to a packed house. The all-black crowd grow sullen until King suggests that Chris and company partake in his next impromptu song. In one of the film’s most fondly remembered sequences, Chris adlibs ‘the Babysitting Blues’ – an infectious ditty that ignites the crowd and puts some distance between Chris and company, and Graydon and Bleak.
Having eluded their captors once more, Brad confides his crush to Chris aboard a subway moments before rival gangs intrude. In the ensuing confrontation, Brad is stabbed in the toe and carried to hospital by Chris and Darryl. However, a riotous mix up occurs when the resident on staff, Dr. Nuhkbane (Sam Moses) is informed by his nurse that ‘the guy with stab wounds just died’. Nuhkbane informs Chris who promptly faints dead away. Brad emerges from the O.R. with a single stitch. The salesman, who is also being attended to for wounds sustained at the Pruitt household confronts Chris, but is knocked to the ground by Handsome John who helps everyone escape questions by the police. Chris takes her young wards to a frat party when Sara informs everyone that she has to go to the bathroom.
There Chris meets campus man, Dan (George Newbern). The two are instantly attracted to each other and Dan offers to drive everyone to Dawson’s garage so that Chris can get her car out of tow. Unfortunately, the proprietor (Vincent D’Onofrio) refuses to give the car back unless Chris pays for the tire first. But when Sara confides in Dawson that he reminds her of Thor – her favourite superhero - the grease monkey’s cold exterior melts to reveal a tender heart.
Chris and her wards flee Bleak and Graydon yet again, this time winding up at the same fashionable cocktail party attended by the Andersons. Sara lures Graydon onto a thin ledge high above the city with the Playboy, and Joe knocks Bleak unconscious when he threatens to shoot Chris. The group pick up Brenda from the bus depot and Chris, Brad, Sara and Darryl race the freeway to beat the Andersons home. They barely make it in time, but Chris manages to do her own inimitable brand of damage control and the parents are none the wiser for their escapades.
Afterward, Chris goes upstairs and tells the kids that she has decided to officially retire from babysitting. But Dan has followed them home, thanks to Sara who left her roller skate with an identifying tag in the back of his Jeep. As Brad looks on with bittersweet regret, Sara shouts through an open window for Chris and Dan to kiss and they do.
Adventures in Babysitting is a crazy quilt of a film. It’s the sort of mindlessly refreshing claptrap that could only have been made during the 1980s – a decade where such light-hearted froth frequently found its home in our collective hearts. It’s a bit of a stretch to say this film is iconic – but it does define that teen farce subgenre in American movies rather well. Director Columbus and screenwriter, David Simkins unfurl their improbable and escapist caper with enjoyable aplomb, while the entire cast sell the fluff and nonsense with genuine believability.
Personally, I’ve always adored Adventures in Babysitting for its undiluted clean fun. It isn’t high art but so what? It’s hilarious in spots, silly in others and moves like gangbusters throughout. Elizabeth Shue does a very fine job of holding everything together, while Anthony Rapp does some clever mucking for the camera that diverts our attentions away from the rather dull Keith Coogan. Personally, I could have done without Maia Brewton and Penelope Ann Miller – too precocious and cloying respectively for my tastes. And it’s pretty hard to swallow Shue’s character being involved with Bradley Whitford. But hey, it’s the 80s; a decade where anything seemed possible – or at least, probable.
Movies from the 1980s generally get a bad rap from the critics for their improbable scenarios – particularly juvenile fare like Adventures in Babysitting. True, this ain’t no Breakfast Club. But in its’ own strange way Adventures in Babysitting does set a standard that holds up remarkably well after 25 years. Best of all – it’s memorable. I found myself waiting for my ‘favourite scenes’; always a good sign that a movie has had a lasting impression on me.
And I wasn’t disappointed in watching the film again. Though it now has a quaint nostalgia about it – at least for me, especially for the go-go 80s when pop culture had a homogenized devil-may-care approach to life in general. But when the lights flickered back on I had the same warm fuzzy feeling I remember fondly after having left the theater for the first time. In my books, that’s a fairly good barometer of how ‘good’ a movie is. As I said, Adventures in Babysitting is definitely not high art. But it is very good at what it does and that is to say that it entertains. As B.B. King suggests, “Ain’t nobody leavin’ this place without singin’ the blues!”
Disney/Touchstone premieres their Blu-ray with a fairly impressive 1080p image. Is it perfect? No. Is it an improvement over the DVD? Definitely! So, where are the flaws? Well, for starters, the image is a wee soft all around. Not sure why. I don’t remember softness being a part of my theatrical experience. Then again, it’s been 25 years! There’s also a very minor smattering of edge effects here and there. Nothing to get your Calvins in a ball over.
The good news: colours are robust. Flesh tones look natural and reds are dramatically vibrant. I also found the overall detailing in the picture, particularly in hair and clothing and faces in close ups to be a quantum improvement that really added to my viewing. Contrast was bang on – no undue darkness here, though overall the image is slightly darker as it should be. Grain, consistently rendered, also gave this transfer a very film-like quality I enjoyed.
The 5.1 DTS master delivers that vintage 80s frontal sounding soundtrack. Dialogue is very crisp and clean. Effects and music lack the spatiality of today’s film recordings, but this isn’t a film from today and the audio appropriately captures that dated feel good when we weren’t so enamoured by effects whizzing past our head or unexpectedly coming up from just behind. The one huge disappointment: NO extras. Not even an audio commentary. Bottom line: Adventures in Babysitting is a pop tart of a movie. It probably won’t satisfy your whole appetite but it will certainly leave a few pleasurable cavities in your mind.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)