Wildly overreaching with his debut, Craig Goodwill creates a musical fairy tale in which cabbage-patch dolls rise up and try to reconnect with their owners.
A gloriously ambitious, spectacularly misguided Frankenstein’s monster of a movie that combines Soviet-era iconography, Eastern European folklore and Western consumer-culture critique with a dash of song and dance, “Patch Town” imagines a world where babies are harvested from cabbage fields, sold to children as dolls, then rounded up and enslaved to work in a prison-like toy factory. That’s an epic undertaking for any debuting feature helmer, and one has to admire the sheer scale of Craig Goodwill’s vision (first implemented in his 2011 short film), even if the writing and direction reveal that he’s not yet up to the task.
Still, better to have overreached and failed than to play it safe, and no one involved is less than fully committed to a project that, had it worked, might have sat alongside such mad-dreamer movies as “Brazil” and “The City of Lost Children.” Goodwill must have had both pics in mind when conjuring this dystopian fairy-tale world, where a tubby ensemble of abandoned dolls — forgotten by their original owners and now forced to labor on the bleak assembly line where they were born — cleave open cabbages and wrest tiny babies from the plants’ oozing insides.
Singing is forbidden at the factory, which is overseen by a pimped-out, hawk-beaked meanie called the Child Catcher (Julian Richings). Naturally, the guards also frown on stealing company property, but the corpulent work force all want babies of their own, including John (newcomer Rob Ramsay), a curly-haired man-child and unlikely leading man, and his wife (Stephanie Pitsiladis, looking like a Polish waitress), who break both rules, not only singing but also keeping an infant stowed beneath their floorboards. But things get a little too dangerous after a neighbor is arrested, so the couple decide to escape to the unknown world beyond the barbed wire fence, seeking answers that will lead John back to the little girl who raised him.
From a screenwriting standpoint, Goodwill’s story is no better than the mass-produced offal he aims to critique, recycling paint-by-numbers plot points as John tries to find his now-adult mom (Zoie Palmer), while the Child Catcher schemes to kidnap her human daughter (Kayla Di Venere). Still, on a deeper level — one that Goodwill can’t quite pull off — you can see what the director is going for as he stages a subversive toy uprising. Here is a movie that wonders what might happen if Cabbage Patch Kids came back decades later to reconnect with the owners who outgrew them.
Once upon a time, those ugly dolls were such a must-have Christmas gift that parents actually came to blows over who could buy them for their kids (just as Mr. Potato Head, Pong and Tickle Me Elmo were faddishly popular with their respective generations). As John, Ramsay looks the way one supposes such a cheeky cherub might a quarter-century later, right down to his yarn-like hairdo, though the actor is overshadowed by his community-theater background (unable to kick the habit of smiling while he sings) and under-equipped for emotional scenes (including a weird one in which he tastes candy for the first time).
Generally speaking, Goodwill doesn’t seem to know how to direct his cast, focusing more on big-picture details like the look and feel of the film. That makes for a frightfully uneven mix of acting styles, many of which are all too obviously from first-timers. Lucky for the helmer, his ensemble boasts two gifted supporting players — hilarious improviser Ken Hall, who plays the Child Catcher’s child-sized henchman, and Suresh John, as Santa’s unlikeliest elf — whose delivery cuts through the otherwise amateurish direction. It was gutsy for Goodwill to have kept the musical aspect of his award-winning short, although for “Patch Town” to work as a tuner, it needs a few memorable tunes, rather than ones you instantly want to forget.