Walt Disney produced this Technicolor musical fantasy, the most lavish of several screen adaptations of Victor Herbert’s popular 1903 operetta. The nursery rhyme themed plot previously served the Laurel and Hardy version of Babes in Toyland (1934), plus a handful of TV specials including one starring a grownup Shirley Temple. However, Disney had the script and songs reworked into a slightly twee, occasionally beguiling experience akin to a feature length parade through Disneyland.
Peeking through theatre curtains, Sylvester the talking goose (voiced by Ray Bolger) introduces Mother Goose (Mary McCarty), who invites us to the nursery land wedding of sweethearts Tom (Tommy Sands) and Mary (beloved Disney starlet Annette Funicello). Rhyme spouting, moustache twirling baddie Barnaby (Ray Bolger again) is eager to marry Mary for her money, so plans to kidnap Tom, aided by blustery fat guy/oafish thin guy comedy sidekicks Gonzorgo (Henry Calvin) and Rodrigo (Gene Sheldon). Sadly, their clowning proves a poor substitute for Stan and Ollie.
Tom’s bouffant hairdo and sub-Pat Boone crooning are similarly vexing. So it comes as a relief when Tom is conked on the head and sold into gypsy slavery, while Barnaby concocts a lie that he died at sea. For an evil encore, the villains drive Mary’s flock of multicoloured sheep into the Forest of No Return. With no source of income, poor Mary agrees to marry Barnaby. Unfortunately for him, he celebrates their impending nuptials by hiring the same gypsy song-and-dance troupe where Tom performs as a cackling drag queen. No really. Judging from his enthusiastic performance, he really enjoys it too. Don’t hold high hopes for that marriage, Mary…
Meanwhile, hoping to save Mary from marrying Barnaby, a bunch of nursery rhyme kids including Bo Peep (Ann Jillian), Boy Blue (Kevin Corcoran), Willy Winkie (Brian Corcoran), and the Twins (Marilee Arnold and Melanie Arnold), venture into the spooky forest in search of the missing sheep. Mary and Tom follow suit. Shortly thereafter the whole gang are menaced by some fantastic, scary singing trees and led to Toyland, where the Toymaker (Ed Wynn) and his assistant Groomio (Disney teen idol Tommy Kirk) are struggling to meet their Christmas deadline. Boy genius Groomio invents a delightfully elaborate toy-making machine that sadly blows a fuse. Worse, his second invention, a ray-gun able to shrink anything down to toy-size, falls into Barnaby’s hands…
Babes in Toyland emerged as one of Walt Disney’s rare box-office flops, but frequent TV screenings and a video release eventually gathered a fan-following. Enough so that the studio remade the film in 1986 starring Drew Barrymore and Keanu Reeves, prior to a non-Disney animation featuring the voices of Christopher Plummer and Lacey Chabert. Its brightly coloured storybook sets and costumes, gorgeous matte paintings and charming special effects highlight the artistry of Disney’s production team, including animator Ward Kimball who co-wrote the script. While the dance choreography is energetic, the somewhat claustrophobic staging of TV director Jack Donahue makes some a chore to sit through. The songs start out weak with the sappy “Just a Whisper Away”, but do improve reaching a highlight when Annette duets with four multicoloured mirror images on the lovely “I Can’t Do the Sums”. A charming sequence whose design recalls Alice in Wonderland (1951).
Prior to her bikini clad Beach Party movies, onetime Mouseketeer Annette Funicello was Disney’s biggest star. She and Tommy Kirk were regularly paired in childhood classics like The Shaggy Dog (1959), The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964) and The Monkey’s Uncle (1965), although Kirk merely cameos here playing second fiddle to the vapid Tommy Sands. Disney’s fondness for casting bygone character actors pays off with sprightly turns from Ed Wynn and the Scarecrow himself, Ray Bolger. The reworked script pushes Walt’s core beliefs to the fore, his utopian idealism, faith in technology and unwavering belief in upholding a strong work ethic, although cynics may characterise scenes of kids helping to make toys as reminiscent of a sweatshop.
Later on the film suddenly turns into Dr Cyclops (1940) with Barnaby terrorizing his miniaturised captives, until an army of wooden soldiers provide the stop-motion highlight. Beautifully designed, lit and edited this riot of exploding cannons, knights on horseback, Indians and toy boats, lingers fondly in the memory.