Rental Corner: “Babes” lacks in story but strong on visuals
Once upon a time, Walt Disney owned the rights to the Oz books and wanted to do a movie with it. At one point, there were plans to make one (titled “The Rainbow Road to Oz”) but they never came together. Thus, 1961 saw the release of “Babes in Toyland” instead. A movie that was not only the studio’s first foray into movie musicals but very much the studio’s first venture into movie musicals and how they work…and it shows. I can understand Walt’s reason behind this movie seeing it does have a “Wizard of Oz” quality in the sets but its easily lacking in heart and audience.
The movie oddly opens up with a stage curtain which confuses me a bit seeing this is our entrance into a world filled with characters from nursery rhymes. This is our first entrance into this unnamed world (supposedly “Mother Goose Village” if you go by the opening song) of colorful characters and I have the feeling I’m watching a staged show. In fact, the first opening number is staged like a live show with obvious sets and the choreography feeling like the actors have rehearsed this for months on end. As much I don’t want to nitpick too much, this is my first problem with “Babes.” The way its set up and executed feels more close to a live telecast/stage show and less like a movie. Jumping to “Wizard of Oz,” its choreographed and executed like a movie and regardless of it being studio shot, there is craft and effort to give Oz a bit of depth. Disney’s “Babes” has flat cardboard sets that feel like a drive-through amusement park ride but at the same time some distinctive charm in design.
The story (if you call it that) revolves around two lovers named Tom Piper and Mary Contrary who go on a set of strange adventures provked by the evil Barnaby who plans to wed Mary and sees all he can do to sepreate the love birds so he can take his opportunity. Apparently, Mary is to be given a huge inheritance upon marrying (yeah, I don’t think that is how marriage works but oh well) and Barnaby wishes to be her husband to gain some dough.
He and his henchman do all they can to sabotage the marriage ranging from selling Tom to a batch of gypsies to letting their sheep roam about lost in the Forest of No Return. The first half of “Babes” is not too bad with the exception of having to sit through one musical number too many as characters speak their words out in song and less in dialogue that could have strengthen a lot of character depth. The second half of “Babes” starts to get a bit odd as Tom, Mary and a group of kids find themselves in Toyland after a series of misadventures and try to help poor Ed Wynn who plans an absent-minded Toymaker who is trying to meet the Christmas deadline. At his side is the assistant Grumio who the Toymaker wishes he would invent something useful even though most the inventions the Toymaker tries out blows up in his face due to misunderstanding its purpose.
The first half knows what “Babes” wants to be but the second half veers into a totally different movie by then. All the staged show feeling glomps down into a strange quirky tone that clashes with the timeless feel in the Mother Goose Villiage. In the Mother Goose Villiage, we get patrons of nursery rhymes while in the workshop of the Toymaker we see toy making machines and a shrink ray that screams 1960’s science fiction. These are two different tones that don’t seem to mesh together and it eventually pulls us out.
On top of that, the two romantic leads played by Tommy Sands and Mickey Mouse Club veteran Annette Funicello are unfortunately uninteresting. Most of the movie, our time is spend seeing them sing their heart out to one another rather than develop their relationship in verbal dialogue. The more they sang a note, the more I wanted to understand them in verbal exchanges. Even worse is Annette who does nothing in the movie but act sad when things go wrong or just watch on in confusion or amazement. Tom, on the other hand, does have more to do as in one humorous scene he poses as an elderly gypsy woman and acts like a straight man in the second half but I don’t find myself cheering on. He unleashes an army of miniature toys against Barnaby and my reaction is “so what?” Why spend your screen time singing your personality when you can talk it? Because we get to understand how the character talks and how we can connect to him/her.
More screen time is spent on Ray Bolger and his performance as the wicked Barnaby complete with top hat, mustache, cape and cane. This is the perfect definition of a stereotypical villain that twirls his facial hair while the damsel is tied to the railroad tracks. And surprisingly, Bolger’s villian is far more interesting and more developed. Ray Bolger tackled vaudeville and played the Scarecrow in 1939’s Wizard of Oz (further cementing Disney’s Oz obsession) and its a nice change to see him playing the antagonist. He doesn’t hold back and you can tell he’s having a good time as he tap dances his villainy one step at a time. His goons for hire Gonzorgo (Henry Calvin) and Roderigo (Gene Sheldon) also pull in some heavy laughs. Coming off of TV’s Zorro, its interesting to see the characters that made them famous transitioned here (with Gene’s mute performance from Zorro also used here to some memorable moments.)
“Babes in Toyland” can be summed up just one massive cartoon adapted for live-action. The sets, tone, humor and everything around it screams Disney cartoon. I do appreciate Walt going the extra mile in not animating this but it only leaves me wondering how this would have played out if it was hand-drawn and not three dimensional. Some of the special effects in this movie complement that as Tom sees animated stars after getting hit on the head and a malfunctioning machines screams “HELP!” in voice and in animated captions. This doesn’t detract too much but it can be bothersome. Case and point is the Forest of No Return as walking, talking and singing trees with googly eyes feel laughable and less menacing (which is my personal favorite scene for the wrong reasons. I end up rolling with laughter but the song with this scene is catchy too.)
The biggest highlight is the climax which is a lot of fun where a shrunken Tom unleashes an army of toys against Barnaby which is fun to watch and the technical work in the effects make me wonder why wasn’t the whole movie filmed and executed like this to begin with. As much as I have a heart for the sets, special effects and other odds and ends here, “Babes in Toyland” doesn’t fully come together. I still enjoy it for the nostalgia sake but not as much as I did as a kid. Its obvious the target here was for a younger crowd and it shows but I feel youngsters might be bored with Tom and Mary who are the heroes of the film.
I only see this movie working if it was done as either a live-telecast in the 1960’s or perhaps a Broadway show made by Disney seeing the sets easily transition it to that feeling and state. The other option is to see this expanded into a length roadshow production as some subplots do go unresolved. We never see Bo Peep get her missing sheep and we don’t know if the Toymaker’s Christmas delivery is made. On the whole, “Babes in Toyland” is not a terrible movie but its very uneven. Its not timeless as Oz was and it does have the 1960’s tint that makes it dated despite efforts in the creativity. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy as I did get a kick out of the side characters and some of the songs are enjoyable. And the restoration effort on Blu-Ray is good enough to recommend it for those nostalgia collectors. But the biggest fault is that “Babes” easily is trying to target ages 0 to 8. And anyone older than that will find it tiresome or enjoyable just for its overly cartoony nature like I did. While its far from being bad, its so far from being a classic. For if little happy blue birds can fly beyond the rainbow, why…oh why, can’t I?
Posted on September 4, 2014, in Rental Corner and tagged 1961, Annette Funicello, Babes in Toyland, Christmas, Disney, Forest of No return, Mother Goose, Movie, Musical, Ray Bolger, Wizard of Oz. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.