Disney's loose, to say the least, adaptation of Babes in Toyland (1961), Victor Herbert's 1903 operetta previously filmed by producer Hal Roach in 1934, is one strange bird. It was made near the end of an era when Walt Disney alternated between very ambitious, often expensive live-action features that lost money and less ambitious, cheaper slapstick comedies that made millions. With the exception of Mary Poppins (1964) and a few others, the studio pretty much gave up on the former for quite a while, concentrating instead on the latter. Babes in Toyland doesn't quite fit either category (or maybe it tries to be both and fails on both counts) and though it features many familiar signature Disney elements, it's a strangely soulless, vacuous movie. None of the characters generate any warmth, sympathy, or interest, though visually it's somewhat interesting. It's also very odd in other respects. The 1934 version starred Laurel & Hardy, while this version features actors blatantly suggesting Laurel & Hardy without explicitly recreating them. (Oliver Hardy had died in 1957, but Stan Laurel was still living when this was made.) Ironically, the 1934 film licensed the Disney versions of the Three Little Pigs (and their signature song) and featured a live-action Mickey Mouse (played by a costumed monkey).
On the other hand, on Blu-ray Babes in Toyland positively dazzles. Home video-wise, Disney hasn't given its classic live-action library the care all of its animated films receive. Few have looked better than adequate on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD. But Babes in Toyland hints at what's possible if handled right. Originally printed by Technicolor, the colors on this Blu-ray release look spectacularly good. The image is impressively sharp and detailed, and even the optical effects, which through faulty printing often drew attention to themselves, here are correctly timed and integrated to near-perfection. Visually at least, Babes in Toyland is a terrific Blu-ray.
After the storybook-style credits, the movie opens strongly, with Mother Goose (Mary McCarty) and her talking gander, Sylvester (a puppet partly manipulated by McCarty, but voiced by the film's director, Jack Donohue), set-up the story, which is presented as a stage play. The curtain opens and various characters are introduced: Mary (Mary, Quite) Contrary (Annette Funicello, billed here simply as "Annette"); her boyfriend, Tom (Tommy Sands), the piper's son; Little Boy Blue (Kevin Corcoran, a Disney regular at this time); and Little Bo Peep (Ann Jillian).
Meanwhile the villainous Barnaby (Ray Bolger), aware that Mary is about to inherit a fortune, plots to win her hand. He hires two bumbling crooks, Gonzorgo (the Oliver-esque Henry Calvin) and Rodrigo (the Laurel-like Gene Sheldon) to kidnapped Tom, throw his body into the sea, and then to steal Mary's herd of sheep.
Eventually, everyone ends up in Toyland, where the incompetent Toymaker (Ed Wynn) and his even less competent assistant, inventor Grumio (Tommy Kirk), struggle to meet their large order of Christmas toys.
Hal Roach's more faithful 1934 film was one of the most problem-plagued of that studio's history and forever soured Roach's relationship with Stan Laurel (and vice-versa). Disney's film apparently ran into similar problems, particularly in terms of developing cinematic material out of a decidedly un-cinematic story. Director David Swift apparently left the film for that reason, while Ward Kimball, one of Disney's "Nine Old Men," co-wrote the script and was also slated to direct, but reportedly had a falling out with Walt himself and left the production also, though he'd continue to work for the Disney company well into the 1970s.
The script on some levels plays like a live-action film written as if it were to be animated. There are, for instance, lots of sight gags, many throwaways requiring elaborate stationary or traveling mattes, or other kinds of effects photography. Some of the sets, particularly the interiors of Barnaby's hilltop haunted house, are like cartoon backgrounds made real.
But the picture has no heart, no soul. The audience doesn't really care whether Mary and Tom will ever be reunited, or if anything can prevent the unhappy marriage of Mary and Barnaby. Funicello is quite good as Mary but has no character to play, though she does get to sing a lot, which she does most pleasantly. Tommy Sands has zero charisma and no chemistry at all with Annette. The film would have played much better had Sands and Tommy Kirk switched roles. Even loveable Ed Wynn comes across as an annoying old fool.
Ray Bolger is simply miscast, though he's giving it his all in every scene. Highly-rated annual Christmastime airings of The Wizard of Oz from 1956 probably played into his casting, but what child would have wanted to see him as a dastardly villain? For all of Bolger's talent, the less experienced Henry Brandon is more threatening and entertaining to watch in the original 1934 film.
Calvin and Sheldon were both regulars on Disney's Zorro TV series, with Sheldon performing his role mute, as he does again here, while Calvin later explicitly imitated Hardy opposite Dick Van Dyke's Laurel on an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. They don't exactly imitate Laurel & Hardy's signature routines or dialogue - Gonzorgo never complains to Rodrigo about the nice mess he's gotten them into - but there's no doubt their characters are specifically fashioned after Laurel & Hardy, and certainly many children watching their old movies on afternoon television mistook them for the same actors. (It confused me when I saw them on TV around 1975.) Stan Laurel's reaction to this grand larceny is unknown; at least I've never read of any in the various books written about him, but he couldn't have been pleased. He might even have been ask to play Rodrigo but turned it down.
As with the 1934 film, Babes in Toyland is entirely studio bound, with deliberately unreal sets and backgrounds, presumably because of the precedent set by Roach's film as well as The Wizard of Oz. However, Disney's feels much more cramped and less imaginative. The sets aren't part of the environment and don't feel "lived in" the way they do in Roach's film, instead resembling something one might see in a TV special. Similarly, talking trees a la The Wizard of Oz also turn up, but they aren't as effective or convincingly "alive," either.
Video & Audio
Presented in its original 1.66:1 widescreen (most Disney movies for the 25 years after 1953 were 1.75:1, but apparently not this one), Babes in Toyland looks really great on Blu-ray, far above expectations. Disney's DVDs of live-action films from this period often looked terrible. Usually they were in the wrong aspect ratio, and/or were weirdly hard-matted (or something) in a way that seemed to crop the image from all four sides, resulting in uncomfortable framing throughout. These DVDs also often sported bad color and timing/printing issues that made optical effects shots glaringly obvious. But Babes in Toyland has none of these problems. The framing is right, the color incredibly rich and saturated (reminding me of how in the early days of high-def TV manufacturers would boast of the added color range and subtly; that comes across here in spades). Best of all, the many optical effects are seamlessly integrated, far better than this reviewer has ever seen with a Disney movie from this era. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio (with 2.0 Spanish audio and subtitle options in those languages plus French and Portuguese) is fine and the disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
Other than catching parts of the film on The Wonderful World of Disney 40 years ago, this was my first experience with Disney's Babes in Toyland and I'm glad to have seen it all the way through for the first time on Blu-ray. The film is severely flawed and overall not very good, despite a lot of energy from some of the players, and yet in high-def it at least looks awfully pretty and less demanding audiences may still enjoy it. My five-year-old certainly did; she was all smiles for the inevitable happy ending.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.