Babes in Toyland Still Jolly Good Fun
By Kristin Battestella
I kept burying this 1961 Disney holiday musical in my queue in order to time it for Christmas, and then too many a “very long wait” from Netflix interfered before Babes in Toyland finally arrived. After so many years of youth and Yule viewings on a jumpy VHS, each December I always have the urge for this memorable merry treat.
Disrupting the bliss of Mother Goose Village, corrupt Mr. Barnaby (Ray Bolger) and his henchman (Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon) plot to ruin the marriage of Mary Quite Contrary (Annette Funicello) and Tom Piper (Tommy Sands). Once they kidnap Tom and steal Mary’s sheep, she is forced to accept Barnaby’s marriage proposal. When Little Bo Peep (Ann Jillian) and the children in Mary’s care set out to the Forest of No Return to find the lost sheep, Mary must protect them and help save the Toymaker (Ed Wynn) and his Toyland from the pursuing Barnaby.
Based upon Victor Herbert’s turn of the century ode, director Jack Donohue (The Lucy Show) adds color and takes some lyrical liberties for the memorable marches and musical numbers here. Thanks to tunes both seasonal and classic- such as the titular “Toyland,” “March of the Toys,” “Slowly He Sank into the Sea,” and “I Can’t Do the Sum” – we still remember all the words five decades on. Yes, it’s all juvenile and simplistic, but also quite catchy, inventive, and most importantly, sing a long-able. Appearances by Mother Goose, Jack and Jill, Jack Be Nimble, and more ensure plenty of 365 days a year watch-ability for kids even if parents can spot some disjointedness to start. There isn’t a lot of straight dialogue here, and most of it rhymes. In fact, there isn’t that much drama, just one musical session after another advancing the plot with song and dance. Tom and Mary don’t even speak for the first 20 minutes. Thankfully, once the story and peril at hand ramp it up, Babes in Toyland becomes one great adventure after another, from the lost sheep to the Forest of No Return and Toyland’s fun and action filled finale. Sure, there isn’t much of a plot if you think too hard, and the Romani misnomers of the day are also stereotypical, but I can’t help myself… “Gypsies! We are the gypsies, and we are here today and gone tomorrow!” All the action happens in an unrealistically fast-paced two days, but this hour and forty-five minutes is a quick and jovial good time.
Wow, Annette Funicello (Beach Party) is so young and pretty in Babes in Toyland! Mary Mary Quite Contrary wears some lovely dresses, sings up a wealth of innocent charm, and is quite the Italian fox, if I do say so myself. What’s not to love? By contrast, Tommy Sands (Ensign Pulver) was a bit of a flash in the pan, granted. Tom sank, oh yes indeed! However, his sixties teen dream entrapment is perfect for the toothache sweet fun here, and Sands’ “Floretta” segment is both totally preposterous and wonderfully in the moment. Likewise, Ray Bolger (Wizard of Oz) is a completely delightful ham. Even wise young viewers might never recognize The Scarecrow thanks to Bolger’s complete mustache twisting and greedy transformation. Every villainous cliché is tossed into Babes in Toyland, including a nasty forced marriage and a few implications not unnoticed by adults viewing today. From the slicked and pasted hair and shiny vampire camp to “Castle in Spain,” Bolger is utterly warped excellence.
Sing it with me, “And We Won’t Be Happy till We Geeeeeet It!” Barnaby has some dang catchy tunes, and likewise Zorro alums Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon are classic in their cahoots. Kidnapping, theft, murderous innuendo- it might seem too heavy for a children’s tale except for the silent slapstick and lovably cruel fun in Babes in Toyland. The watery bedlam is totally on the nose and may even be downright annoying to some today, and yet every piece of it works. Love or hate the ham, this tomfoolery is mighty entertaining! Ed Wynn (Mary Poppins) is adorably dimwitted and charming in his stupidity, and Tommy Kirk (Swiss Family Robinson) matches perfectly with a nerdy but affable fun. The children in lesser roles such as Ann Jillian (It’s A Living) and Kevin Corcoran (Old Yeller) are somewhat brief but do some dear singing. Parents beware, however- the “Forest of No Return” jingle and Toyland workshop destruction might be somewhat scary for super young ones. Since they are 10ish and under it is probably okay to have the boys and girls sleep together in the same room onscreen. But five of them in one room?! How does Mary not pull that pretty hair out?
Obviously, despite its high-end production at the time, Babes in Toyland is dated with silly puppetry, stage-like cardboard facades for sets, evident matte paintings, and shiny, plastic lawns. It’s all ridiculous really, and yet there is an interactive musical charm to the design. Though small scale now, the fantasy costumes, colorful backdrops, and bright kitschy looks so much nicer and more family friendly compared to the contemporary in your face CGI and modern dark and dirty fantasy realism. The dance routines are also of the time, but still well choreographed and impressive fun. Don’t lie! Whatever your age, you know you’d hang out in Mother Goose Village or chillax at Mary’s house like it was a medieval fantasy faire. The animation accents, color and video effects, miniature filming, and stop motion scenery create so bad its cool retro Rube Goldbergs- although modern kids might find the somewhat crappy looking toys lame. Fortunately, those who had such wooden horses and Lincoln logs can reminisce or create new family memories with Babes in Toyland.
Though available on DVD, there aren’t any features or behind the scenes treats, which is surprising for a Disney release. The picture is also unfortunately not in widescreen, and Babes in Toyland is becoming rarer and increasingly edited on television as well. Sure, the whole thing is really quite silly, and you must turn off your elder brain to appreciate Babes in Toyland- especially parents who didn’t grow up watching it but now have the kids hooked. However, there’s also a smart, self-referential goofy at work, something for all members of the family to be bemused. They just can’t make films like this today and have them be so good. Both young boys and girls can delight, too. Adults who saw Babes in Toyland as kids can enjoy again and gain with their young ones at Christmas or year round.