I remember seeing trailers for this movie when it originally came out in 1992 and it looked really funny. At the time, I wasn’t old enough to see a PG-13 movie, so I never got a chance to watch it. But after seeing the Nostalgia Critic’s review of it on YouTube recently, I decided to rent it from iTunes. As I recall, this was the first animated movie to feature an all-Black cast as well as deviate from the usual kid-friendly Disney and Disney rival animated films that were popular at the time. But does Bebe’s Kids serve as a good entry into the non-Disney arena or is it a forgettable 90s animated flick?
Honestly, I’m split on my feelings about Bebe’s Kids. I knew going in that it wasn’t universally panned but it didn’t receive collective praise either. At the very least I expected to be entertained and, for the most part, I was. On one hand, it’s a fast-paced movie, clocking in at a little over 70 minutes and featuring fun, colorful animation; some good jokes; and a workable premise. On the other hand, the speedy pace acts as a detriment, characters who are supposed to be “heroes” are sometimes hard to root for, and there are some decidedly mixed messages.
Let me share the things I liked about the movie first before delving into some of its problems. First, the story’s premise is a fun idea. While it could have been explored by overwhelmingly incorporating multiple avenues, the movie keeps its focus and sets the bulk of its action in one primary setting, a Disney-esque amusement park called Fun World. Plotwise, the movie is based on the standup comedy of the late Robin Harris. More particularly, it centers on a routine of Harris’ about some notorious little neer-do-wells known only as “Bebe’s kids,” who are troublemakers to the extreme. In the movie, these children are given names – LaShawn, Kahlil, and baby Pee Wee (voiced by rapper Tone Loc) – and are under the temporary watch of Jamika, who has a son of her own named Leon. Robin Harris (as the movie’s animated protagonist) first meets Jamika at her boss’ funeral and decides to ask her out after she gives him a ride home. The two agree to go on a first date of sorts to Fun World with the four kids in tow. Mayhem ensues, which tries Robin’s patience; but by the end, he sees how Bebe isn’t a good mother and has a change of heart towards her three little monsters.
As stated, this is a fun premise and the movie manages to keep its focus. We’re treated to a day at Fun World, which is intentionally an amusement park spoof, as we see exactly how bad Bebe’s children can be. And while they never cause any real harm, they damage quite a bit of property as well as torment and scare park goers. Out of the four children, I liked Leon the best because he at least tries to behave himself even when egged on by the other children. Though he has no father in his life, he loves and respects his mom and even shows respect to Robin by being polite. Overall, Leon is a good kid and contrasts the behavior of LaShawn, Kahlil, and Pee Wee. While I suppose it would have been expecting too much for some of his manners to rub off on them, he at least does his best not to get dragged down to their level. Mostly.
Animation-wise, Bebe’s Kids doesn’t strive for realism but keeps things cartoony. Characters’ features are exaggerated, especially the adult female characters, and their movements are rapid-fire. Style-wise, the overall look of the movie reminded me of the early 1990s, short-lived Saturday morning cartoon show Hammerman (albeit with less sloppy designs and choppy movements) in that it’s brightly colored and retains a loose, quasi-graffiti style at times. I liked the movie’s overall look, and while it’s not worth watching for that alone, it fulfills its purpose and fits the story’s overall tone. I also enjoyed the film’s music and I wished iTunes had a soundtrack for it because I’d definitely check it out. The movie relies on a fun mixture of 90s hip-hop, R&B, and new jack swing. Two of my favorites are a slick remake of “Your Love Keeps Working on Me” by Joey Diggs and the smooth, cool “All My Love” by Phil Perry and Renee Diggs.
Bebe’s Kids‘ pacing carries its action along and, seeing as this is based on material from a standup comedy routine, it effectively mines the story’s essentials without adding too many plot elements into the mix. However, sometimes the movie feels a little too fast as there is no significant character development or growth here. Even Robin’s change of heart comes essentially at the end of the movie, so it’s a case of too little too late. Aside from this, none of the other characters display any sense of growth other than Leon who begins to see the value in standing up for himself. Otherwise, the characters we met at the start of the movie are the same personality and temperament-wise by the time the end credits roll.
But I did have some problems with Bebe’s Kids and its pacing is one of its lesser issues. First, the movie harbors a rather polarizing view regarding race. On a positive side, I appreciate the fact that this was the first all-Black-cast animated movie and it presents aspects of Black culture by not relying too heavily on stereotypes. However, the way Bebe’s Kids depicts Whites is not exactly subtle. Whites fall into one of two camps, either as villains, especially as enemies to the Black characters, or as unhelpful, mindless morons. For instance, the quasi-Secret Service agents who serve as Fun World’s police are all White – no Blacks, no Asians, no other race. In the same way, most of the park goers, upon whom LaShawn, Kahlil, and Pee Wee deliver their abuse, are White and depicted as clueless, uncool dorks who almost deserve the kids’ torment.
I’m going to stop short of saying the movie intentionally demeans Whites; however, it struck me as a little too coincidental that all of the police/authority figures and less than intelligent characters are White, and the smart, cool, capable characters are all Black. I couldn’t help but wonder what the reaction would have been if the reverse had been true: no doubt that would have elicited cries of racism, but it seemingly gets a pass when it’s Whites who are being belittled. I’m not going to belabor this point, but it’s worth bringing attention to because it annoyed me to see these less than obvious racial jabs that most certainly wouldn’t have existed had the opposite scenario been true.
But what I took the biggest issue with was the movie’s mixed messages. As stated earlier, the “heroes” are sometimes difficult to root for. Robin is the chief protagonist but he’s not always likeable. He has his moments when he’s a nice guy and, in the end, he does have a change of heart regarding LaShawn, Kahlil, and Pee Wee. But for the most part he’s a bundle of contradictions. For starters, it’s no secret that Robin can’t stand Bebe’s kids (Leon he’s fine with because, for the most part, Leon behaves himself). Robin calls them names and insults them (“Test tube babies!”) and threatens to do them physical harm when they disobey (“I’m gonna beat the Black off you!”) though he never actually does. To be fair, some of his actions reminded me slightly of Bernie Mac on the titular The Bernie Mac Show, which I loved and I’ve seen every episode countless times. Bernie played a curmudgeon who wasn’t always fond of raising his sister’s three children (who, to be fair, were far better behaved than Bebe’s kids!). However, most times Bernie acted out of the best interest for the children, so his good deeds, even if done grumpily, far outweighed his displays of frustration.
Here, Robin does only three major acts of kindness towards LaShawn, Kahlil, and Pee Wee, from buying them lunch to giving them money for pizza while their mother is AWOL. He also tries to instill some sense of discipline in them when he tells them he “ain’t havin’ it” when it comes to their destructive antics. The rest of the time though he’s snuggling up to Jamika, avoiding his ex-wife and her loopy friend, and putting as much distance between him and Bebe’s kids as possible. He leaves them unsupervised and even tries to escape the park without them. However, Jamika makes several remarks about how “good” Robin is with the kids. But my question is – how? Again, Robin does show compassion towards Bebe’s kids near the movie’s end, but it has no emotional build up. In fact, the scene just before his change of heart shows him abandoning the kids and encouraging Jamika to do the same. Not exactly paternal figure material, if you ask me.
Another mixed message is one that tries to put a stamp on approval on Bebe’s kids’ behavior. This crops up in the movie’s most bizarre scene when LaShawn, Kahlil, Pee Wee, and Leon are put on “trial” by a Terminator-eqsue robot and an animatronic Richard Nixon. Speaking in their defense is an animatronic Abraham Lincoln, the only White character who is not depicted as an antagonist or an idiot. (And, yes, I know how weird all of this sounds but it’s an actual direction the plot takes – I’m serious.) In short, the kids are in trouble for wrecking havoc, but Leon stands up for himself and his friends as he raps that what they need most is “freedom.” On one hand, he pleads to be given a second chance, which is fine and admirable. However, right after this, the kids continue their reign of chaos. Furthermore, the message here is that Bebe’s kids deserve “freedom” because they don’t know any better than to be mischief-makers and, thanks to a poor home environment, they should be given license to do whatever they want, even if it means causing trouble or destroying property.
Hence, the movie makes a subtle case for how a person’s environment shapes them (which is true to an extent) and how it should serve as an excuse to justify bad behavior and attitudes. In the case of LaShawn, Kahlil, and Pee Wee, they can’t help being little monsters because they have an absent mother and, as such, have no one to teach them how to behave. Therefore, they should be excused from punishment or correction because they can’t help the way they act and deserve to be given free reign to do whatever they want as a form of reparation. This brings up serious moral questions the movie never touches on much less addresses. I understand that this is, first and foremost, a comedy. However, the fact that it’s “heroes” use their home life as an excuse for bad behavior – and as an excuse as to why they can’t and won’t change said behavior – leaves a stain on the movie’s otherwise colorful image.
Content: Bebe’s Kids was given a PG-13 rating:
Language – Profanity usage is occasional and not pervasive, chiefly employing PG-level words.
Violence – The violence, which is bloodless, is a cross between slapstick and general comedic mayhem, especially as the kids rain down chaos upon Fun World, and their actions range from committing property damage to tormenting visitors. Other moments involve bad behavior and attitudes, and in such scenes characters get into scrapes, scuffles, and fisticuffs that don’t cause any real harm. One child gets sick on a ride and we hear the sound of him throwing up but never see anything. Robin makes threats of physical violence against Bebe’s kids when they misbehave but never actually hurts them. Some adult characters also force the children onto a roller coaster-type ride against their will as a form of “punishment.” Lastly, there are some mild gross out moments, such as when Robin picks his nose while driving and spits out a cookie that had a roach on it (the roach escapes unscathed) and Pee Wee’s continuously dirty diaper, which is denoted by a constant swarm of flies and remarks from other characters about the smell.
Sexual Material – None in terms of sex scenes but there are some innuendos that are admittedly mild for a PG-13 film. Many of the Black female characters are drawn to emphasize their body type, size, and features, though some of these instances are intended for comedic effect. During a montage, the camera focuses on Jamika’s fully clothed backside while she dances. Some artwork and signs display women in ways to emphasize their bodies but there is never any nudity (though one such image is a neon sign of a woman in a bikini-style costume). During a rap, Kahlil and Pee Wee both briefly pull down their pants and show their backsides for a few seconds but this is strictly for laughs. In the same rap, Pee Wee makes a double entendre about wanting what’s under a woman’s blouse. During another song, Leon raps and grabs his crotch in a non-sexual manner as he waves his other hand in the air. Elsewhere, some men flirt with Jamika but their comments aren’t crude or crass (such as one character calls her a “brick house”). Later, Robin and Jamika kiss but it doesn’t lead to anything further. Two child characters are forced to pucker up but nothing more occurs as it’s played entirely for laughs.
Substance Abuse – The movie opens with Robin at a bar, drinking and sharing his woes with a friendly blind bartender. The bartender keeps Robin’s glass full as the movie cuts away to the bar scene multiple times. To his credit, Robin eventually has a vision of himself as a stumbling drunk and decides to leave. Lastly, during the opening credits, we see a child – from the child’s POV – on a big wheeler enter a grocery store and head to the refrigerated section. The child then acts like he’s going to reach for a case of beer but instead grabs one of several baby bottles.
Thematic Elements – Parental abandonment is an underlying theme as it’s no secret that Bebe is almost a non-presence in her children’s lives, and we never glimpse her nor the children’s fathers nor Leon’s father. LaShawn, Kahlil, and Pee Wee all live in a rundown apartment that is devoid of many comforts of a true home. Jamika even comments that, “Those kids don’t stand a chance in that neighborhood.” Elsewhere, Robin makes a few jokes about slavery, such as saying he’s “happier than a runaway slave,” and telling another character that, “Your mama’s so old, she was there the first day of slavery.”
Overall, Bebe’s Kids tried to stand out from Disney and the Disney wannabes in being a rebellious, not-exactly-kid-friendly pick. To its credit, there are some things it does fine albeit not perfectly: the animation is colorful and fun, some of the jokes work, and it’s not a long movie to sit through. However, its mixed messages can leave one feeling confused about whether to cheer Bebe’s neer-do-wells on or leave them in a state of perpetual time out.