REVIEW: Adventures in Babysitting (1987)

Or, if you lived in the right country back in 1987, A Night on the Town. This 1987 teen comedy marked the directorial debut of Chris Columbus, already a successful screenwriter via Gremlins (1984) and The Goonies (1985) but working here from a David Simkins script. The film was a reasonable success for Disney’s Touchstone Pictures at the time, and retains a fairly healthy cult following among those who were the right age at the appropriate time.

High school senior Chris (Elisabeth Shue) is all dressed up for a date with boyfriend Mike (Bradley Whitford), only for him to renege at the last minute. Instead she finds herself babysitting three children for the evening. When her best friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller) calls from the city desperate for help, Chris sets out on a odyssey through Chicago’s back streets with all three kids in tow.

Adventures in Babysitting desperately wants to be a John Hughes movie. At the time Hughes was America’s most highly regarded maker of teen cinema, thanks to a string of hits including Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Pretty in Pink (1986). Babysitting does not simply copy Hughes’ standard Chicago setting, it duplicates his approach to in its soundtrack (there’s a lot of Chicago-style blues and roots underlying the action), and gently pushes the envelope in terms of language and content. It particularly seems to share territory with 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, another secretive teen journey into central Chicago, but pushes the suspension of disbelief even further.

This is a highly episodic feature, with Chris and her young charges Brad (Keith Coogan), Sarah (Maia Brewton), and Daryl (Anthony Rapp) undergoing a chain of encounters and crises on the highway, in a stolen car, on the train, and other locations in an effort to reach Brenda then return home. Some elements work, while others feel rather strained. Altogether it forms an amiable road trip with more good elements than bad, although it has understandable dated rather badly in places. For the 21st century viewer there is some entertainment to be found simply in seeing actors in early roles, including Vincent D’Onofrio as a car mechanic with an uncanny resemblance to the Mighty Thor, Penelope Ann Miller five years before Carlito’s Way, and Star Trek: Discovery star Anthony Rapp back when he was still a child actor.

One of the most interesting aspects of Adventures in Babysitting today is how it represents a genre of American film that largely no longer exists. The coarse language and occasionally violent content puts it beyond an audience of children, but the young protagonists clearly make it less interesting for an audience of adults. This kind of teen-oriented movie died out in the 1990s, and today that leaves Babysitting without a comfortable place to sit.

These days the film is streaming in most countries on Disney+, albeit with all foul language dubbed over like an old television edit. It is almost understandable, given that Disney is protective of its all-ages brand and doesn’t operate Touchstone Pictures any more, but it also makes something of a mess of the film. One character telling another to mind their language doesn’t make a lick of sense if they aren’t swearing any more. While removing two uses of a homophobic slur may be reasonable, messing around with the film’s most iconic line (‘Don’t fuck with the babysitter!’) is unforgivable. I have it on good authority that online versions of the film for rent and sale contain the theatrical edit.

I suspect it’s nostalgia that makes Adventures in Babysitting continue to work for its audience. For anybody new, it is almost certainly only worth tracking down as a historical artefact: an example of the way Hollywood youth films used to be.

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