Impoverished peasant boy Jack (Bobby Riha) sings a jaunty tune to lift his spirits as he leads his cow to market only to stumble into a duet with musical peddler Jeremy (Gene Kelly). Fast-talking Jeremy covinces the lad to part with his prized cow in return for some magic beans whilst insisting that he's "got to believe" in order to reverse his flagging fortunes. Though Jack's mother proves far from impressed, overnight there sprouts a giant beanstalk that stretches into the sky. Whereupon Jeremy joins Jack to climb the beanstalk to a kingdom in the clouds. There Jack discovers a goose that lays golden eggs, Jeremy falls in love with a princess (voiced by Janet Waldo) trapped inside a harp by a magic spell before they both try to outwit the evil Giant terrorizing the kingdom.
Made for television, Jack and the Beanstalk was a late career triumph for song and dance icon Gene Kelly. Following a three year break from movies this Emmy award-winning production put Kelly back on the map and, coupled with the simultaneous theatrical release of his comedy A Guide for the Married Man (1967) paved the way for the troubled Hello Dolly! (1969). It also reunited Kelly with William Hanna and Joe Barbera, the animation team behind his famous dance with Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1948) and the 'Sinbad the Sailor' sequence in Invitation to the Dance (1956). By this point in time the duo were arguably as big a force in entertainment as the celebrated actor-choreographer-director following a decade's worth of popular cartoons with a quarter of a century more yet to come. Though the fusion of live action with animation undoubtedly appears primitive to modern eyes there is no denying the various set-pieces are pretty ambitious, lavish and eye-catching for television in the mid-to-late Sixties. In fact scenes where Gene swings on a cartoon thread across the castle, dances with Woggle Birds or duets with Serena amidst a sea of twinkling stars are quite charming. Even so the animated giant is a lot less menacing in person than the voice supplied by Ted Cassidy, formerly Lurch from The Addams Family. Perennial substitute vocalist Marni Nixon also steps in to perform as Serena for the song, "One Starry Moment."
Scripted by sitcom veterans Larry Markes and Michael Morris, Jack and the Beanstalk spins a yarn even more simplistic than the original fairytale with dialogue that comes across a trifle twee. Even so, in Kelly's hands plot takes a back seat to ebullient musical numbers. As actor-director Kelly monopolizes the screen as the quick-thinking, fast-talking, charismatic Jeremy. He outwits the giant, saves Jack several times, initiates every song and dance number and unfortunately, all too easily eclipses the stilted performance of child star Bobby Riha. Poor Jack is reduced to a bystander in his own fairytale! Nevertheless, in his first starring role, Riha comes alive in the musical sequences where he just about holds his own with Kelly. The young actor went on to a solid career in both live action and animation on television, including another staple of family viewing Santa and the Three Bears (1970), but eventually turned his back on acting for a career as a successful photographer for USA Today.
Kelly brings his customary magic to the toe-tapping dance sequences that showcase his mastery of a variety of styles but the songs composed by Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen are hit and miss, with some more beguiling than others.