`Toyland' leads off a week of holiday specials

Babes in Toyland CBS, Friday, 8-11 p.m. Stars: Drew Barrymore, Pat Morita, Eileen Brennan, Richard Mulligan. Writer: Paul Zindel, adapted from Victor Herbert's operetta. Music: Leslie Bricusse/Victor Herbert. Director: Clive Donner. I have a confession to make: Christmas whimsy seems to bring out the Scrooge in me. Prepare yourself for a crotchety preview.

``Babes in Toyland'' is full of quintessential holiday fantasy - people dressed like piggies, families dwelling in oversized shoes, toy soldiers parading around a toy workshop, as cookies become objects of grand larceny.

This new production of the 1903 Victor Herbert operetta, which was made into a movie in 1934, boasts new songs by Leslie Bricusse (who wrote ``What Kind of Fool Am I?'') and a new teleplay by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Zindel (for ``The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds'').

They have concocted a huge, squishy marshmallow, dipped in sticky hot fudge. It boasts songs just as forgettable as those in the 1934 movie - except for ``The March of the Toys,'' which unfortunately gets short shrift in favor of new songs that, I guess, are supposed to advance the story line, whatever that is.

Throughout the fantasy/dream sequences that make up most of the three-hour-long special, viewers will find a touch of just about every showbiz whimsicality they can remember, including moments obviously inspired by ``The Wizard of Oz,'' ``E.T.,'' and - would you believe? - ``Night of the Living Dead.''

As if that m'elange weren't enough, the film veers off into parable, too, with some ``deep'' references to Good and Evil.

The little girl (played by the rapidly growing-up Drew Barrymore of ``E.T.'' fame) learns to like being a child, as she becomes convinced that things will be OK if she ``believes.''

Believes in what?

Toys, I think the script is saying.

``Keep your business out of other people's noses,'' says the forgetful Mother Hubbard, played with harsh lovability by Eileen Brennan. The major villain, Barnaby (played by Richard Mulligan), is the most interesting character. ``I don't want toys,'' he mutters. ``I want Toyland.''

``Babes in Toyland'' falls into a self-made generation gap. Chasm is more like it.

The film is too old for youngsters and too young for oldsters. It airs too late in the evening for the very young, who would appreciate it most. In any event, it might be just as well that they miss the very scary monster chase in the third hour.

At the conclusion, when Drew zooms across the sky in Santa's sled `a la ``E.T.,'' you realize how much you miss the real ``E.T.''

Also missed are some good old-fashioned comedians. The show desperately needs somebody like Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, or even the Three Stooges to liven things up.

Despite all these reservations, ``Toyland'' still comes through as a good-natured, well-intentioned attempt to celebrate the holiday season.

It tries so hard to please everybody - like an overstuffed youngster earnestly singing ``Jingle Bells'' off key at a school assembly.

See it with a child. You may have to pinch him to keep him awake during the lagging second hour.

The show is full of glorious toys, and children will especially enjoy everybody driving those fun bump-'em cars.

It's better than standing in line with a child in front of a toy store.

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic. On pages 25 and 28, he also gives capsule previews of 20 other TV specials being aired over the next week.

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