Saturday, December 22, 2018

Movie Review: "Babes in Toyland" (1961)

Director: Jack Donohue
Year: 1961
Rating: NR
Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

When the evil Barnaby interferes in the wedding of Tom Piper and Mary Contrary, it sets off a chain of events that lead Tom, Mary, and her siblings to Toyland where they must help the toymaker build things for Christmas.

Babes in Toyland 1961 movie still
"I'd never marry just for wealth alone." (Image Source)
"Babes in Toyland" is said to be a Christmas movie, and to some, that may be true, but only one in the loosest sense imaginable. This film is directed by Jack Donohue, who has directed films like "Close-Up" and "The Yellow Cab Man" but is much better known as a television director on shows like "The Frank Sinatra Show" and "The Red Skelton Show." This is a Disney adaptation of the 1903 operetta of the same name by Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough. It takes place in the Mother Goose fairytale universe and tells the story of Tom Piper (Tommy Sands) and Mary Contrary (Annette Funicello), who are madly in love and are about to be married. The evil miser Barnaby (Ray Bolger) wants Mary to marry him instead, so he hires two mercenaries, Gonzorgo (Henry Calvin) and Roderigo (Gene Sheldon), to kidnap Tom, throw him in the ocean, and then steal Mary's sheep, leaving her financially destitute so she will have no other option but to marry Barnaby for his money. Looking to cash in twice, the two men instead sell Tom to a band of gypsies. This allows Tom to return home to Mary, and help her look for her sheep along with her siblings. This leads them through the Forest of No Return to Toyland where they help the Toymaker build toys for Christmas. However, Barnaby is determined to make Mary his bride and may have found a way to do it in Toyland.
Babes in Toyland 1961 movie still
"I've heard it said that gypsies buy babies." (Image Source)
With "Babes in Toyland," Disney tried to bring the world of Mother Goose to life in one of their first large-scale live-action musicals. This film was a huge flop but managed to get some notoriety over the years through its television play. Heck, it even pops up on many a Christmas list, though we can't imagine why. Merely mentioning Christmas doesn't make something a Christmas movie, people! Snow and red dresses and people making toys aren't enough to call something a 'holiday film.' The story here is surprisingly dark at times as its major themes involve kidnapping, stealing, murder, and blackmailing someone into marriage just because they desire them. There's even a line about selling babies to gypsies. Thanks, Disney! As a musical, the tunes are hit and miss. A couple of the songs are fun and toe-tapping, but the majority of them involve subjects like maintaining your finances by balancing your checkbook and going into crippling debt. But remember, IT'S A CHRISTMAS MOVIE!!! In fact, all the talk of crippling debt is probably more Christmas-oriented thematically than the making of toys is. The costumes and sets are fun, colorful, and whimsical. Though they are dated, they are still enjoyable. The visuals are good for their time as those behind the scenes used forced perspective to create miniature versions of actors. The acting isn't great, but we do appreciate Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon doing their best Laurel and Hardy impressions as an homage to the 1934 film adaptation of this material (which stars those two legendary comedians). Ed Wynn also brings some humor to the story as the bumbling, bossy, but ultimately kindhearted toymaker.
Babes in Toyland 1961 movie still
"That's right, we were just playing with the toys." (Image Source)
We debated not including "Babes in Toyland" in our annual 12 days of Christmas review series because there's really just not enough yuletide goings on to call this a holly-jolly flick, but truth be told, with all the major movies reviewed on this site already, we can't afford to be without this review, so here we are. This movie is a bit of a mixed bag. BigJ enjoyed it a little more due to some nostalgic memories of watching it as a child, but even he can see its glaring flaws, especially in its narrative. This one was a bit of a chore to get through.

My Rating: 4/10
BigJ's Rating: 5/10
IMDB's Rating: 6.3/10
RT Rating: 36%
Do we recommend this movie: Meh.

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  1. I feel like when people talk about 'Babes in Toyland' as a Christmas movie they're thinking more of the 80s adaptation that had Keanu Reeves, Drew Barrymore, and Pat Morita.

    That version, I feel, is definitely a Christmas movie since the Toymaker winds up being revealed as Santa Claus at the end.

    1. Hi! All of the versions of "Babes in Toyland" are on the Wikipedia entry for Christmas movies, so we wanted to start with the most popular one. We've never seen the one with Keanu Reeves!