Babes in Toyland [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (22nd June 2013).
The Film

With the recent news of Annette Funicello’s passing – at the surprisingly (by today’s standards) young age of 70 - I figured it might be time to take in a viewing of one of her earlier efforts, “Babes in Toyland” (1961). This is one of those films that I’ve heard mentioned numerous times, yet I’d managed to see not a single frame throughout my life. That might be because it isn’t exactly the most beloved of Disney films. You see, this was Walt’s first foray into the world of live-action musicals, and it proved to be somewhat of a misstep. The story was adapted from Victor Herbert’s 1903 operetta of the same name, which has seen more than a couple big screen iterations. While there are many of the trappings you’d expect from a Disney production of this vintage, the fact of the matter is the film falls flat for any number of reasons. Audiences of the time didn’t miss out on that truth because the movie was a notorious bomb when it debuted. In fact, it did so bad that Disney didn’t make another live-action musical until “"Mary Poppins" (1964), and the film was sidelined for re-release, instead going straight to television as two one-hour specials that aired on ABC. Even watching it now, with a love of all things vintage Disney, time hasn’t proved to be any kinder in Toyland.

This Mother Goose tale, chock full of classic fairytale characters from those stories, primarily focuses on Mary, Mary Quite Contrary (Annette Funicello, billed simply as “Annette”) and her budding romance with Tom the Piper’s Son (Tommy Sands). The two are to be wed shortly – but the scheming, nefarious Barnaby (a hammy Ray Bolger) wants to get Tom out of the picture so he can marry Mary and gain control of her soon-to-be fortune. Helping Barnaby to carry out his plan are the dim-witted duo of Gonzorgo (Henry Calvin) and Roderigo (Gene Sheldon), who manage to sell Tom off to some gypsies (!) – despite Barnaby wanting him dropped into the ocean - so that he’s out of the picture. But unfortunately for Barnaby, he hires the gypsies to perform at his nuptials, and Tom reveals himself to a shocked crowd. Even though Mary has him back now, Barnaby’s men have stolen her sheep and sent them to the Forbidden Forest. So, now they must go on an adventure to find them, encountering more madcaps along the way, including a crazy toymaker (Ed Wynn) and a final stand of sorts by Barnaby.

Here’s the film’s biggest problem: it’s boring. Sure, the sets have an old-school charm to them despite looking so obviously like film sets. There are loads of gorgeous costumes and rich primary colors dazzling the screen. Even some of the performances are enthralling. But everything just falls flat. The songs – which appear far too frequently – just aren’t all that good. All are forgettable, and some are completely wretched. And they seem to go on for far too long. Disney apparently had all of the original songs redone with new music tempos and lyrics (essentially making them all new songs) and they clearly didn’t strike a chord with audiences. It’s a shame, too, because Disney rarely had many missteps in their early days, both in animation and live-action films. I think a large part of the problem has to do with the action feeling so confined. The sets look like a high school musical stage, complete with a backdrop that barely evokes the feeling they were likely going for. The actors are all so dull, too. Well, mostly. Annette is gorgeous, but she’s also a milquetoast spinster who wants to get hitched more than anything else. Tom is a cheesy ham, and his old gypsy woman shtick will have you groaning with bemusement. Barnaby’s two sycophants – Gonzorgo and Roderigo – are clearly imitations of Laurel & Hardy, the successful comedic duo who starred in their own version of “Babes in Toyland” back in 1934. That film, by the way, is considered to be the superior version above all others. Why they chose to take a cheap shot at it here is curious, since they only succeeded in undermining the quality of their own picture by giving us two boob-ish crooks with a faulty moral compass.

Ed Wynn rocks, though. He gets REALLY over the top, sometimes to my chagrin. But, dammit, the man does his best to save this lackadaisical picture. His character, the Toymaker, is an absolute buffoon. He’s like Homer Simpson meets Santa Claus. A man with a heart so big that it takes up all the blood his brain should be getting. His antics are frustratingly hilarious, such as when he overloads a clearly fragile toy making machine by setting it to pump out four million toys in “super-fast” mode. Once he sets it, and it goes predictably out of control, he runs around the room like a wailing lunatic rather than do anything to stop the mess he started. And don’t even get me going on Grumio (Tommy Kirk), his thankless, moronic assistant. Still, he at least brings a lot of life to the film, something it had been sorely lacking since the opening credits.

Unless this is a film you watched as a child, chances are most adults won’t find a great deal of pleasure here. The film is pedestrian to a fault, with very little to justify the 106 minutes that ensue. Things pick up a decent amount while building toward the climax, but by the time these events occur I suspect most will have already started intermittently checking their iPhones or something, looking for a minor escape from this maudlin world. Just do yourself a favor - forget this film exists and pretend “Mary Poppins” is Disney’s REAL first live-action musical, then go enjoy that one. It never gets old.

Video

Curiously, the back cover states this is a 1.33:1 image, when the reality is that it’s framed closer to 1.66:1. The 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded image is pleasing enough. I really dig the color saturation which was representative of the Technicolor process used back in those days. There are lots of bold primary hues that create a warm, lush aesthetic you’d expect to find in the Disneyland Park or some magical land. It doesn’t look like any major kind of restoration work has been done here, but the print used was clearly in good condition. There isn’t much depth, though. Everything is pretty sharp for the most part, with some facial close-ups revealing a lot of stage makeup that might not have been as noticeable before. The image has a fine layer of grain over it, nothing obtrusive or noisy. I’m sure a little more spit and polish could’ve gotten this thing look stellar, but I can understand why they didn’t.

Audio

The only available audio comes in the form of an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. It is functional. It is limited in range. It has very little impact. It is passable. But they could have done a little better here. There’s also a Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track which, honestly, might make the film more fun. Subtitles are included for English for the hearing impaired, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Extras

Nothing.

Apparently, Disney must think very little of this film because they didn’t even put trailers on the disc! Disney. Not doing promotion. Very surprising.

Packaging

The single disc comes housed in Disney’s standard Blu-ray keep case, which is a fine, sturdy case. The cover art is boring, like the movie.

Overall

The Film: C- Video: B- Audio: C+ Extras: F Overall: C-

 


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