Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: December 14, 1961
Directed by: Jack Donohue
Stars: 3 out of 5
The series of Disney live-action film musicals that peaked with the superb “Mary Poppins” in 1964, and some would say sunk very low with “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” in 2010, had a modest beginning with the holiday musical “Babes in Toyland” in 1961. Yet, there are many elements in this film in which audiences will notice the beginning of familiar Disney traditions, such as nonsensical lyrics with charged upbeat melodies that culminate in “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and a storyline made up of fairytale or nursery-rhyme narrative lines and characters.
“Babes in Toyland” begins right at the center of nursery-rhyme universe with Mother Goose herself narrating, or in fact, playing straight woman to an over-the-top sidekick who provides color commentary about the story Mother Goose is recounting. Two characters from her nursery rhymes, Mary Contrary, played with joyful aplomb by Annette Funicello-the former Disney Mouseketeer who would move on to more adult fare in the “Beach Party” movies-and Tom the Piper’s Son (Tommy Sands) are getting married. But Barnaby (Ray Bolger), having shed completely all the naiveté of his Scarecrow character in “The Wizard of Oz,” has other plans. Barnaby does not seem to come from any Mother Goose rhyme, and his only job appears to be as the town’s villain. He believes he is the one who should be Mary’s husband for reasons we are not quite sure of at first. He sends out thugs to get rid of Tom by casting him into the sea.
All this is written and played up by the actors with the glee and zeal of the most committed melodramatic troupe, a tactic that makes sense because both this version of “Babes in Toyland” and the earlier Laurel and Hardy adaptation were based on an operetta. So we know the plot will only thicken, and the crescendos peak even higher when the thugs decide they can double their money if they sell Tom to a band of gypsies. This offers the audience an opportunity not only to enjoy a great musical number performed by Tom and the gypsies but also to delight in watching the clueless Barnaby, who does not suspect he has been double-crossed, drool at the prospect of wedding Mary Contrary, who is distraught with the news of Tom’s drowning as reported by the thugs.
But Tom reappears, as he must to keep the dramatic tension calibrated to the stupendously animated musical set pieces-he reappears in drag, dressed as Gypsy woman, eventually revealing himself to Barnaby. The villain runs off the double-dealing thugs and tells Mary one of her sheep has gone missing in the Forest of No Return. Although by this point it seems that many of the plot points are connected for no reason other than the show must go on, it does not really matter; all the character/actors seem to be having so much fun that any audience will follow them cheerily into the Forest of No Return, where Mary’s sheep has apparently wandered.
So even after instances of fraud, attempted murder, and a trip into the dangerous forest, the mood refuses to darken in “Babes in Toyland,” and our engaged couple survives being torn from each other again. At one point, Tom and others are shrunk by a magical-shrinking gadget that is the invention of an absent-minded Toymaker, played grandly by Ed Wynn, making this otherwise throwaway character a central element of the last half of the film. The shrinking motif, pilfered right out of the pages of “Alice in Wonderland,” is then cleverly used in the undoing of Barnaby; not before he uses the gadget himself to wreak havoc and come within inches of achieving his dream of wedding Mary (by this point everyone knows it’s because he has found out Mary has inherited a fortune from some mysterious source). But, he who lives by the shrinking gadget . . . and this wild, musical comedy ends with a proper wedding.
Although no one will likely come out of the theater with any of the songs from this musical stuck in her head, Funicello and Sands, a country music star who once played on the same circuit as Elvis Presley, are good together, and even though the material often catches up to the energy of their performances, the musical numbers alone make this film worth watching.