As young Willy McBean (voiced by Billie May Richards) studies for a much-dreaded history test in through his bedroom window jumps Pablo (Paul Soles), a talking monkey with a crazy Spanish accent ("I'm a great Latin lover, cha-cha-cha!"). Having stolen secret plans from former boss, mad scientist Professor Rasputin Von Rotten (Larry D. Mann), Pablo convinces boy genius Willy to build a 'magical time-machine.' Together boy and monkey travel through time to stop Professor Von Rotten's scheme to make himself responsible for history's greatest inventions.
Rankin-Bass, the prolific studio co-founded by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, dabbled in a variety of fields including cel animation and live action monster movies. Yet the studio's best-loved works remain their stop-motion animations, principally a long run of holiday-themed television specials - most notably: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) - although they also dabbled in feature films. Willy McBean and His Magic Machine was their first effort in the so-called Animagic process, co-produced with Japanese advertising company Dentsu with input from Japanese crew-men. Among them pioneering stop-motion animator Tadahito Mochinaga who worked on several Rankin-Bass productions. Unaccountably obscure compared with the likes of Mad Monster Party? (1967), Willy McBean... exhibits the same quirky charm and endearingly eccentric humour that characterize the best of their output.
No great fan of history, Willy laments should Professor Von Rotten alter the course of global events he will have to study all over again. To that end he and Pablo (whose vociferous boasts about being a 'great Latin lover' are a trifle unsettling to hear in a children's movie) travel to the old west to stop Professor from shooting Buffalo Bill and 1492 to ensure Christopher Columbus discovers America. Then it is on to England, 524 A.D. where King Arthur is a drippy nerd barely tolerated by his knights until Willy helps him pull Cockney voiced talking sword Excalibur from the stone. Ever-horny Pablo goes ga-ga for seductive witch Morgan La Fey before they tangle with an amusingly camp dragon ("devouring babes and living in caves is not my cup of tea!"). Following a scary stop at the Roman Colliseum it is off to Egypt where Professor Von Rotten aims to cement his name as history's greatest architect by building the pyramids. Finally in prehistoric times Willy tries to keep Von Rotten from taking credit for the discovery of fire while Pablo takes on an angry Tyrannosaurus Rex in a battle that is not as one-sided as one might expect. There's fire in that monkey.
As with the studio's following feature film The Daydreamer (1966) the plot leans towards the episodic yet remains lively and inventive. Sure, historical accuracy flies out the window but Arthur Rankin, who penned the script, concocts some clever and witty scenarios. Surprisingly for a family film from this period Willy McBean and His Magic Machine is fairly cynical about American history. Key historical figures like General Custer and Buffalo Bill are portrayed as self-aggrandizing buffoon and wily old rogue respectively. The script even alludes to Christopher Columbus' misadventures in the slave trade ("Look at all those Indians!"). Conversely it paints a fairly even-handed portrait of Sitting Bull even if he does partake in a pretty hilarious song-and-dance number with Buffalo Bill and argues about top-billing in the wild west show. The songs are not the timeless classics found in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer but engaging with genuinely funny lyrics. If the story lacks the disarming philosophical undertones found in the very best Rankin-Bass animations it at least skilfully avoids any heavy-handed moralizing. Instead it shows Willy subtly affecting historical change and even influencing adversaries by virtue of simply being a good kid.