Don’t @#$% with the babysitter!
By the time Chris Columbus made his 1987 directorial debut at the tender age of 29, he was no stranger to Hollywood. In three short years, he had sold four scripts, all becoming major studio releases — Reckless, Gremlins, The Goonies, and Young Sherlock Holmes — three of which are now revered as cult classics. It’s not surprising then his first film behind the camera would possess some of that same magic.
Stood up by her boyfriend (Bradley Whitford, The West Wing) on their anniversary, high schooler Chris Parker (Elizabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas) takes a last-minute, easy money gig babysitting the Anderson kids — Brad (Keith Coogan, Toy Soldiers) and Sara (Maia Brewton, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose). Or so she thought. A panicked phone call from Chris’ friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller, The Shadow) — who has run away from home and gotten in trouble — sends the trio and a “stray dog” (Anthony Rapp, Rent) into the big bad city of Chicago, where a flat tire lands them in the middle of a violent domestic dispute and subsequent carjacking, a stolen Playboy magazine inadvertently exposes an illegal chop shop precipitating a death defying escape, while a perpetual case of mistaken identity and a frenzied fugitive chase make for one night these kids will never forget…if they survive! “You kids must be from the suburbs.”
By no means a genre picture pre-loaded with geek cred, Adventures in Babysitting firmly establishes Columbus’ unique brand of family-friendly entertainment with a decidedly irreverent edge. Cut from the same cloth as John Hughes, Chris takes David Simkin’s script and makes it his own, dropping the film and its characters squarely into the same universe as Ferris Bueller, Samantha Baker, John Bender, Gary Wallace, and Phil “Duckie” Dale; making the film all the more charming.
There’s nothing earth-shattering or wholly original about Columbus’ directorial debut that rocked mid-1980s Hollywood. Adventures in Babysitting is a classic “road picture” populated by unique tertiary characters and wacky mixups. But the film earns its cinematic stripes through a pervasive endearing nature that fuels its emotional core. These characters are earnestly identifiable. We instantly feel Brad’s embarrassment, when his crush on Chris is unceremoniously exposed and repeatedly crushed. We’ve all had friends who are quick to shoot their mouth off and even quicker to run away when things don’t go as planned. We know what it means to care for someone too naive and trusting to know better. And we’ve all been put into a situation that forces us out of our comfort zone to do the right thing, even in the face of fear and uncertainty. The film gives us all that and more in 102 minutes of pure memorable entertainment.
With a box office hit romantic lead (The Karate Kid) and a short-lived TV series (Call to Glory) under her belt, 24 year old Elizabeth Shue reportedly bested Valerie Bertinelli (One Day at a Time), Justine Bateman (Family Ties), and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss (Seinfeld) for the role of Chris Parker, and deservedly so. Sincerity is something Shue does extremely well, and it’s the perfect base upon which to layer the fantastic and absurd: the gunfight at the Pruitts, the daring warehouse rafters escape, crashing Albert Collins blues set (in a scene that pays homage to John Landis’ The Blues Brothers), stopping an L train gang fight, not to mention Sara’s climactic outdoor acrobatics. At no point does anything become so unbelievable that it takes us out of the picture. Columbus hits all the right beats to ensure we’re invested from the very start to the pulse-pounding finish.
As someone who grew up in Chicago as a Gen-Xer, Adventures in Babysitting carries a certain sentimentality which may taint my opinion of the film. And yet to a person, I’ve encountered no one who doesn’t love it in some way, shape, or form. In fact, I had the pleasure of attending a late night double feature of this and Toy Soldiers at Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema in LA, with live commentary and Q&A from Keith Coogan, and the crowd that turned out was fantastic. Keith expressed as much adoration for making the film as everyone in attendance did watching it. Which is what makes this Blu-ray release from Disney so incredibly frustrating.
The audacity of releasing it as a “25th Anniversary Edition” with nothing more than a remastered transfer is shameful. The original bare bones DVD release was pitiful enough, but this is unforgivable. You cannot tell me that no one involved in the making of this film was available for a commentary or retrospective interviews. Hell, they didn’t even bother to put a real menu structure, let alone include the theatrical trailer on this release. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the uptick in visual fidelity, because this 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is the best the film has ever looked. Yes, it’s still a product of the ’80s, which means moderate-to-heavy film grain in the darker scenes and somewhat muted colors, but the detail you’ll find in the chop shop, Dawson’s garage, in the frat house (never noticed Andrew Shue at the party before), and on the streets is eye-opening. Yes, significant portions of the film were shot in Toronto and don’t always mesh well with the actual Chicago locations, and the photo matte manipulated city skyline is painfully obvious (the Smurfit-Stone building where Chris and Sara’s dad works faces the lake, not the suburbs), but those contrivances quickly give way to the zany adventures happening on screen. And while I appreciate the bump to DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, there’s nothing in the film that utilizes the expanded sound film. This is a dialogue centric picture colored by a beautiful Michael Kamen score and some memorable soundtrack selections (Coogan shared with us that Touchstone couldn’t afford to license all of The Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter” for the Dawson’s garage sequence, which is why it faded out after the opening instrumental).
If you’ve never seen Adventures in Babysitting you owe it to yourself to check out this Blu-ray. While the added bonus is seeing early career appearances by George Newbern (Father of the Bride), Vincent D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket), and Broadway’s Anthony Rapp, the real reward is experiencing a film whose heart and smile are as big as the City of Big Shoulders.
Not Guilty…but Thor will forever be a homo.