Documentary Review: ‘Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story Of The Cabbage Patch Kids’

by | Nov 23, 2023 | Featured Post, Movie Reviews, Movies | 0 comments

Greetings again from the darkness. While in protective mode attempting to avoid being trampled during Black Friday shopping, you may wonder how the frenzy all started. Well, documentarian Andrew Jenks is happy to inform you that it dates back to 1983 when the first battles in the retail aisles were over an odd-looking doll (only don’t call them dolls) called Cabbage Patch Kids. To get us in the mood for shopping combat, the film opens by blasting Alice Cooper’s 1973 hit, “Billion Dollar Babies”.

Neil Patrick Harris narrates as the history of the Cabbage Patch Kids is tracked. I’ll admit to expecting a ‘cute documentary’ on the popular toys-babies-kids (anything but dolls), and while the cuteness is discussed, what we really get is yet another lesson in cut-throat business practices. Xavier Roberts is the one who manufactured the CPK and signed the licensing rights to Roger Schlaifer, who in turn sold the marketing rights to Coleco’s executive, Al Kahn. To understand the era, one must know that this was the front end of the 1980’s consumerism spike, as well as new advertising rules from the FCC, which permitted direct-to-kids ads. All of these fell into place to create the demand for the one-of-a-kind CPK.

But were they really one-of-a-kind? The second half of the film details the multi-year legal battle of Martha Nelson Thomas, who had been selling her ‘doll babies’ in the craft shop managed by Xavier Roberts. Her handmade babies looked almost identical to his, and even came with adoption papers that became so vital to the CPK marketing efforts. We hear from her attorney and her two adult kids, as Ms. Thomas has since passed away. The lawyer explains the case and how they attempted to have Xavier Roberts held accountable for his ‘theft’.

To his credit, Mr. Roberts gives his first interview in 20+ years, and is joined by Della Tolhurst, the former President of his company. Roberts explains how he was inspired by Walt Disney, and we tour his Babyland in Georgia, which provided an all-encompassing background story for the Cabbage Patch Kids and an experience for his customers. Whether you fall on the side of Xavier Roberts or the side of Martha Nelson Thomas, the courts affirmed his rights to the CPK empire.

Journalist Connie Chung offers her recollection of the frenzy, and we hear from the Proseys, a couple of collectors who once owned more than 6000 Cabbage Patch Kids. They explain how the re-sell market for the kids was bonkers, and parents just had to have these for their kid’s Christmas. So, beyond the shady business practice, there is the whole Black Friday frenzy. Sure it started with Cabbage Patch Kids and rude people yanking packages right from the hands of kids, but did we learn our lesson? Evidence suggests it’s only gotten worse over the years thanks to items like Beanie Babies, Tickle Me Elmo, American Girls dolls, and others. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder for CPK, but our society tends to wash, rinse, repeat.

Coming to theaters beginning November 24, 2023

David Ferguson
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