Part live action, part stop-motion animation, The Daydreamer is an amazing children’s fantasy based on the fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson. Inspired by the success of Mary Poppins (1964), producer Joseph E. Levine (whose varied credits ran from Godzilla (1954) to The Graduate (1967)) approached animation wizards Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass to deliver something similar. Rankin-Bass are best known for delightful, Christmas-themed animated specials like Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, yet the Japan-based studio produced surprisingly sophisticated family fare, often quirky, lyrical and philosophically inclined. It’s no surprise Tim Burton counts them as a major influence.
In a storybook village, young Chris (Paul O’Keefe) is sick of being poor. He watches his shoemaker father (Jack Gilford) slave away for a bullying customer (Margaret Hamilton - the witch from The Wizard of Oz (1939)), and struggle to pay the Pie Man (Ray Bolger - the scarecrow from Wizard of Oz. What is this, a reunion?) for a single pie. Chris believes his wishes will come true if only he can find the legendary Garden of Paradise. One night, the Sandman (Cyril Ritchard) promises to show the way, leading him on an enchanted journey rendered in stop-motion “Animagic”. Shipwrecked, Chris is rescued by the Little Mermaid (Hayley Mills), who brings him to an undersea kingdom ruled by Father Neptune (Burl Ives - a Rankin-Bass regular). To save his life, the lovestruck Little Mermaid makes a deal with the Sea Witch (Tallulah Bankhead), but Chris leaves her heartbroken on the rocky shore.
Next, Chris hooks up with two, shifty salesmen (Terry-Thomas and Victor Borge) and helps sell their ‘invisible’ robe to the gullible Emperor (Ed Wynn). Left to deal with an angry mob, Chris escapes when pretty, pint-sized Thumbelina (Patty Duke - O’Keefe’s regular co-star on The Patty Duke Show) shrinks him down. They fall in love, but run afoul of a sneaky Rat (Boris Karloff - who rejoined Rankin-Bass for Mad Monster Party? (1967)) who schemes to marry Thumbelina off to his wealthy friend, Mole (Sessue Hayakawa - from Bridge Over The River Kwai (1957)!). A bird, whose life Thumbelina saved, is set to take her to the kingdom of fairies, while Chris ditches his girlfriend and finally reaches the Garden of Paradise. Here, Chris learns the knowledge it offers comes with a price…
The Daydreamer doesn’t go the Disney route and try to sugar-coat the sometimes harsh, often melancholy nature of Hans Anderson’s stories. Our hero Chris behaves like a selfish jerk, casting friends and loved ones aside in ruthless pursuit of his goal. Yet far from being detrimental, this aspect underlines the fiercely moral subtext to Chris’ journey. With admirable economy, Rankin-Bass streamline Anderson’s fairytales into an episodic narrative that builds life-lessons to cumulative effect. As with all great fantastical journeys it isn’t the destination that matters, it’s the journey - something Chris only comes to realise near the end. The central message, that hard work, selflessness and love will always trump greed, self-centredness and apathy, isn’t trite but necessary in an age when fairytale characters have been turned into misogynistic caricatures.
Appropriately dreamy in tone, the film is paced like a leisurely stroll on a warm summer’s day, which may alienate those accustomed to the whiz-bang pyrotechnics of CG cartoons. Episodes range from poetic (Patty Duke’s earnest vocals perfectly pitch Thumbelina’s plight), slapstick (a chorus of bats sing in praise of the Mole’s gloomy lair), and achingly sad (Hayley Mills is an ideal Little Mermaid - you could find yourself welling up…). After a strong start, the live action inserts, particularly a subplot involving a an ogre-like gamekeeper, threaten to derail the smooth flowing narrative. However, the animated sequences keep things on track. Movie buffs should relish the starry cast and youngsters can delight in the jaunty musical numbers, moments of magic and whimsy, plus a surreal interlude involving a giant, monster frog.