SAN DIEGO: December 13, 2017 – How does a film critic recommend a familiar Christmas movie with enthusiasm and reservation at the same time? This intriguing question can be answered in just three words; Babes in Toyland, a 1961 musical that has been airing on television for years around the month of December.
Produced by Walt Disney in 1961 and directed by Jack Donohue, Babes in Toyland is based loosely (very loosely) on the classic 1930 stage operetta by American composer Victor Herbert.
Disney’s First Live-Action Musical
The film is historically notable as Disney’s first attempt at a live-action musical. While failing dismally in terms of both box office and critical acclaim, Babes in Toyland still paved the way for a second Disney attempt at live-action musical only a few years later, this time succeeding with a film that earned 5 Academy Awards and was even nominated for Best Picture of the Year, Mary Poppins!
Still, lest we forget the courageous prototype, Christmas is a good time to offer an appreciation (of sorts) to Babes in Toyland.
Babes in Toyland
Although quite corny in places, I cannot forget the thrill when seeing this movie in the theater as a child. Considering the era in which it was filmed, Babes in Toyland had wonderful special effects and plenty of Disney magic.
If you can stay with it up to the time the children actually enter Toyland (about halfway through) you will find that the wait was worth it.
“The March of the Toy Soldiers” number and final battle sequence are absolutely spectacular!
I am disappointed that this movie didn’t become more popular, but with an all-star cast, including, Ray Bolger (the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz) as an enjoyable villain this time, Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello (early Mouseketeers and familiar faces in many Disney films) the hilarious Ed Wynn (Uncle Albert from Mary Poppins) as the toymaker himself, and timeless Christmas music from the original stage version, Babes and Toyland should be an annual tradition.
Why then, did it not make my Top Ten list?
Because the bad parts are so terrible and the good parts are so wonderful, one not only feels frustrated, but must also wonder what went on during the production of the film. Either a lemon script was partially saved, or a brilliant script was pushed off the wall, and, like Humpty Dumpty, who ironically would have blended in well with the background of this movie, no one could put it together again.
There is little to redeem the first half of the film. In places, the songs and dialogue get so stupid and so childish, you would be embarrassed to have your friends or family walk into the room and catch you watching this albatross. Yes, the movie was made for children so we need to cut a little slack, but not much.
Babes in Toyland Critique
Although we can accept the fact that Mother Goose Village is a setting for youngsters, Disney’s hallmark genius and well deserved reputation are generally demonstrated in an ability to entertain kids and adults alike. Not so this time!
Early in the film, the actor’s talent is wasted with dialogue that often rhymes. An interesting experiment that simply did not work. In the second half of the movie they are not rhyming anymore. Go figure!
Once the kindergarten poetry stops, the conversations are crisp, witty and (at least a bit) more realistic.
Part One did feature some fabulous dance numbers, but honestly, you would do better to read the cliff notes and then fast forward to the second half. The movie, after all, is called Babes in Toyland and (trust me on this) the part about Toyland is better than the part for babes.
Tom and Mary
I still love the movie, mostly for nostalgic reasons. But if I placed it in my Top Ten List and you watched the first half, my reputation would be on the line. I do not love Babes in Toyland enough to put it high on a list and I love it too much to put it on the bottom.
So instead, apart from any list at all, it stands.
Therefore, with disclaimer warts and all, my sentimental side does recommend Walt Disney’s Babes in Toyland! Thumbs up! OK…Thumbs halfway up!
Bob Siegel is a weekend radio talk show host on KCBQ and a regular CommDigiNew columnist. His novel “The Dangerous Christmas Ornament” is a 2017 “Distinguished Favorite” of the Independent Press Award and the New York City Big Book Award. The book is also listed by About Read as one of the Top 30 Recommended Action Adventure Books for 11 Year Olds!