Movie Review: Babes in Toyland (1961)
Following the end of World War II, Walt Disney attempted to rebuild his studio from the stalemate it had found itself in. However, his drive in the world of animation wasn’t quite what it once was. And as such, Walt soon found himself being side-tracked into other realms, such as television, and a pet-project that became known as: Disneyland.
Also during this time, was his push to bring live-action filmmaking to the studio. During the 1950’s, the studio had success with film adaptations such as Treasure Island, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. However, one area that the studio had conquered well within animation, had yet to properly be done on-screen by the studio: a live-action musical.
Word was, one property that Walt was eager to get off the ground, was one of the books in the Wizard of Oz series, titled Rainbow Road to Oz. Concepts, costumes, and what could be considered a preview of the film, showed on the Disneyland television series in 1957, with performances by several of the studio’s Mouseketeers (including fan-favorite, Annette Funicello). However, the project was eventually shelved, with numerous theories abounding as to the cause.
Instead, the first live-action musical the studio would undertake, would be released 4 years later: an adaptation of the operetta: Babes in Toyland.
Set up as an elaborate stage musical that the audience seems to float into, we join Mother Goose (Mary McCarty) and her pet goose Sylvester, in Mother Goose Village. The citizenry is all based around characters from popular nursery rhymes, with two of them to be wed soon. They are Mary (quite) Contrary (Annette Funicello) and Tom Piper (aka the piper’s son, played by Tommy Sands). One person who is not happy regarding the nuptials, is the town’s landlord Barnaby (Ray Bolger), who schemes to separate the two and marry Mary, who is (through unknown means) meant to inherit money upon her marriage.
Over the course of 1 1/2 hours, the film takes the viewer from the village, to The Forest of No Return, and finally, the Toyland of the title, presided over by the Toymaker (Ed Wynn).
Looking over the film, one can’t help but feels there’s some left-over residue from not only Rainbow Road, but also some connections to the MGM Wizard of Oz film. With almost all of the film’s sequences shot within the soundstages of the Disney Studios, it has the spectacle of an old-style musical in its setups. And let’s not forget one of the most notable connections: Ray Bolger, who played the role of the Scarecrow in the MGM Oz film.
One would assume that given its content, and being a Disney production, the film would be a homerun. Instead, it almost feels like another studio’s production trying to copy the Disney style. So, where does Babes in Toyland stray off the path?
One could most likely claim this in the way of the story and characters. Sadly, most of the characters don’t really have much in the way of development. Many seem to be just as simple as their name implies. Because they are simple characters in nursery rhymes, the filmmakers may have felt they could have gotten away with this, but it keeps many of the characters from sticking in our minds years later.
Annette is still a charming young woman in the production, but she seems little more than that. Her dark-brown hair has been lightened, and she seems little more than a wide-eyed innocent at times. In fact, don’t be surprised if she seems a little like Judy Garland’s Dorothy from Oz.
Tommy Sands serves moreso as her co-star, but offers very little in the way of character moments that make him memorable. His one big chance to shine, is during the battle scene at the end.
In a production such as this, it seems that the more memorable cast are the co-stars. Barnaby’s devious machinations make him all the more memorable, with Bolger’s fancy footwork and voice sticking in our ears, notably in how he pitches his voice across several octaves. It is also a little funny that with his slicked-back hair and mustache, he almost looks like Walt Disney from the 1930’s.
His henchmen Gonzorgo (Henry Calvin) and Rodrigo (Gene Sheldon) serve as the typical bumbling henchmen, with Sheldon’s Rodrigo seeming to be channeling the characters of Dopey and Gideon from Snow White, and Pinocchio. His baggy clothes and demeanor seem very much like Dopey, though his constant attempts to double-cross and bash in someone’s head with a wooden mallet seem very much like Gideon. Is it me, or was there some stereotype of the time about quiet persons being liabilities that could lead to murder or death?
Near the last third of the film, we are introduced to The Toymaker and his assistant, Grumio (Tommy Kirk). Wynn’s portrayal of the Toymaker is one of the better moments, with the actor giving a kooky twist to a man who isn’t quite as smart as he thinks. Kirk’s portrayal as the eager-to-please assistant has some decent moments as well.
Musically, the film takes the songs from the operetta, and either tweaks them, or creates whole new pieces. In this day and age the larger choral numbers and love ballads seem a little hokey to modern day ears. If one has a good ear, one can hear similar tones to other Disney songs. For example, the ballad Just A Whisper Away, has some similar melodies, as the song Love from the animated Robin Hood (both of which were written by the same songwriter, George Bruns).
Also of note, is quite a number of physical effects throughout the film. Sylvester is an intriguing puppet manipulated by Mary McCarty, and in one sequence, several children encounter talking trees. The tree designs are almost like animated figures brought to life, even if their bases are rather flimsy.
It feels like that may be the biggest fault of the film: a lot of what we’re seeing, we’ve seen done better in some of the animated features. One notable scene is where Mary sings with a chorus of multi-colored selves, which is a little similar to the “Sing Sweet Nightingale” sequence from the animated Cinderella.
Though the highlight of the film’s craftsmanship comes during a sequence where Tom rallies a number of toy soldiers against Barnaby. The stop-motion in the sequence was surely amplified in the minds of hundreds of children, given the pomp and circumstance of the moment.
Released in December of 1961, it definitely feels like the film was aimed to become a Holiday “classic.” Heck, several of the toys within the film became some of the first to be shown on screen, and then make their way to toy shelves that Holiday season.
An episode of the Disneyland TV show aired around the same time as the film’s release, with Walt Disney and Annette guiding their television audience around the film sets, and to the big wrap party. The special is another great little behind-the-scenes deal, showing everything from sets being disassembled, to the bank of makeup artists preparing dancers for the big gypsy dance number.
The film also became one of the first to be publicized within the Disneyland theme park. After production, the Mother Goose Village sets were moved into the Main Street Opera House, where visitors could walk amongst them.
Also adding to it’s theme park legacy, are the numerous toy soldiers one sees during the Holiday parades at the parks, which are based on those from the film.
In closing, one can’t help but feel that Babes in Toyland is a passable effort on behalf of the studio, but does not hold up well when viewed years later. In a positive light, one can look at it as a stepping stone to the studio’s most famous live-action musical, Mary Poppins, which debuted 3 years later.