Every so often, you come across a cult classic that you’ve somehow never heard of, despite the fact that it’s so exactly your specific brand of weird. Take, for example, Shelley Duvall’s Mother Goose Rock ‘n’ Rhyme, the candy-coloured, existential fever dream of a Disney Channel musical from 1990.
Like a lot of the Disney Channel’s early movies, Rock ‘n’ Rhyme doesn’t exactly air with any regularity and exists mostly in the minds of people who happened to catch an original broadcast and folks who got their hands on one of the few VHS copies and subsequently uploaded it online.
The movie’s the kind of trippy, improbable kind of production that you almost can’t believe ever actually existed, if only for the sheer number of celebrities it brought together to tell a ridiculous story about finding one’s self in a world that makes no sense.
Set in the world of Rhymeland, Rock ‘n’ Rhyme tells the story of Gordon Goose (Dan Gilroy), the curmudgeonly son of Mother Goose (Jean Stapleton), the seeming matriarch of an entire magical world where nursery rhymes are living people whose personalities are defined by the songs we sing about them. Unlike most of the world’s “Rhymies,” Gordon isn’t especially prone to whimsy and he finds the constant mayhem that defines Rhymeland to be exhausting.
Rock ‘n’ Rhyme balances Gordon’s dreary demeanour out by introducing Bo Peep (Shelley Duvall), a local shepherd who’s lost her sheep, but is more than down to go on a madcap adventure to save the world before she gets back to looking for her flock.
When Mother Goose suddenly goes missing, it’s an immediate cause for concern, but when various Rhymies begin to disappear in the absence of her magic, Gordon and Bo Peep realise that they’ve got to find her before they, too, vanish. And so they go on an adventure meeting all the residents of Rhymetown.
The movie’s synopsis alone is fairly straightforward and reads like a spiritual, corporate ancestor to ABC’s Once Upon a Time, but there’s a very specific way that Rock ‘n’ Rhyme exists just outside of the realm of your typical reimagining of fairy tales aimed at a younger audience.
To put it simply, the movie’s just really, really weird in that classic Pee-wee’s Playhouse sense that always leaves you feeling as if something is deeply demented about what you’re watching (wait until you see Howie Mandel as Humpty Dumpty). But at the same time, you’re having fun—and some of the music is pretty damned good.
As Gordon and Bo Peep journey through Rhymeland, they cross paths with Rhymies you’d expect to meet, like the Itsy Bitsy Spider — played by Broadway extraordinaire Ben Vereen, who interprets the character as something like a cross between Will.i.am and Miss Piggy — and Mary, Mary Quite Contrary performed by Married With Children’s Katey Sagal.
Having to ask a pathological contrarian for information to find someone is obviously a less than ideal situation, but Bo Peep keenly points out that Mary, Mary definitely knows where Little Miss Muffet (Pia Zadora) is because she’s always been jealous of her, and that’s the just kind of stuff jealous people know.
It’s in a moment like that when Rock ‘n’ Rhyme reveals itself to be way more wickedly funny than it initially lets on, and the humour’s only heightened by the revolving door of celebrities making appearances in roles you just wouldn’t expect to see them playing.
Cyndi Lauper doesn’t make sense as the other Mary who’s grown to resent her lamb, Lou (Woody Harrelson), who’s spent his entire life following her around and crowding her space. And yet, she totally does in the weird way that you really could only ever hope to appreciate by watching the film as an adult.
There are moments that feel rather on the nose, like when Little Richard as Old King Cole threatens to torture people until they’re squealing with happiness and laughter, but then are actual moments of something like profundity. Like when Bo Peep and Gordon realise where Mother Goose has gone off to.
In its final third of so, Rock ‘n’ Rhyme shifts into an oddly meta space where the Rhymies reckon with the fact that they’re fictional beings who only exist in the stories that “real” people entertain themselves by reading. But that reality isn’t really a crisis for the Rhymies, and the movie doesn’t try to frame it as such.
Instead, it’s a plot device that the movie subtly uses to make a statement about what happens with small groups of people try to take ownership of stories that belong to everyone.
But just as Rock ‘n’ Rhyme starts to get heady, it falls right back down to Earth accompanied by its excellent soundtrack — Paul Simon, the Stray Cats, and Bobby Brown all perform, not to mention additional appearances by Debbie Harry and ZZ Top.
The movie brings you more or less right back to square one, albeit with everyone having a slightly brighter outlook on things. As campy cult classics go, Shelley Duvall’s Mother Goose Rock ‘n’ Rhyme holds its own because it knows precisely what kind of story it wants to be.
For all of its wildness, it’s tight and to the point, and like Bo Peep, it makes its message clear in a rather roundabout way: Just go with the flow and everything’ll work out in the end.