In many ways, Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids is the predecessor to 2021’s HBO documentary, Beanie Mania and this year’s The Beanie Bubble on Apple TV. The groundwork for the mayhem of the Beanie Babies was simply history repeating itself. Instead of bean bag animals, it was soft cloth dolls that incited riots at local department stores.
There is no shortage of pop culture capitalistic crazes to mine for documentary and miniseries fodder. We’re simply biding time before the inevitable Squishmallow documentary and a miniseries about the 2016 Christmas Hatchimal season that some of us had to endure as minimum wage employees at the local Target. What does it say about our society that we are so willing to drop everything and join in on some fad? Where’s the Livestrong bracelet docuseries? Or a feature length film about Furbies? It speaks to human nature, or better or worse, that we are a moment’s notice from a fight breaking out at a department store over a toy. That herd mentality speaks to our cave person roots of needing to follow the masses. The Cabbage Patch kids were not the first to incite this level of enthusiasm and it certainly won’t be the last.
Xavier Roberts created the Little People dolls and an entire world for them to inhabit, but he took issue with referring to the Little People as dolls. Employees who worked at Babyland, the Little People Hospital in Cleveland, Georgia, exclusively referred to the Little People as babies. The hospital is a full-service tourist attraction that includes hourly births of these babies in a cabbage patch. Babyland also features an Adoption Office where children can pay an adoption fee and fill out paperwork that will allow them to take home a Little Person. When Coleco purchased the rights to the Little People in 1982, the name was changed to Cabbage Patch Kids. Thus began a marketing plan that was unprecedented in its scope. Coleco catered its advertisements to boys and girls, a new frontier for doll companies. Almost immediately, it was full-blown Cabbage Patch pandemonium around the world.
The documentary’s weak point is in Neil Patrick Harris’ narration. There are moments when he tries to shift the focus from the baffling drama of the Cabbage Patch Kids/Little People with a mediocre joke. This story of greed, consumerism, and revolution of the toy industry doesn’t need a celebrity narrator to entice viewers. Harris’ narration is distracting at best, and ultimately unnecessary, and it takes away from time that could be spent on the featured experts. The film includes interviews with Xavier (the first in decades), toy experts, scholars of consumer culture, and individuals who participated in the fad.
The true crime wave has turned the documentary industry into a more mainstream genre than ever before. Anything and everything is fodder for a documentary. There is less concern about the “why” and more concern with how quickly the film can be made. Billion Dollar Babies is fascinating for the sheer oddity of the story. It’s a subject the audience will likely be tangentially knowledgeable about before seeing the film, but they won’t walk away knowing too much more.
Billion Dollar Babies barely scratches the surface of the perfect storm that allowed the Cabbage Patch Kids to become the sensation they were. It was an era of excess, disposable income, and a new kind of invasive marketing that combined to increase peer pressure and the desire to keep up with the neighbors. Billion Dollar Babies isn’t interested in looking at the systematic reasons that allowed this phenomenon nor its lasting impact on consumerism. That decision is what holds the film back from becoming something greater than just a jaunt down memory lane. The film lacks any sort of a critical edge that would help the narrative amount to something deeper about the commodification of the American Dream, scammers, and the scarcity economy.
Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids is not particularly innovative in terms of documentary storytelling, but that doesn’t affect the easygoing nature of the film. The documentary is a simple crowd pleaser for a family movie night. There’s a third-act surprise that’s worth keeping secret, and the wild ride to that point is filled with shoulder pads, cabbage plants, and Black Friday chaos.
Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids is screening at theaters across the U.S. beginning November 24, 2023.