Babes In Toyland was the first live-action, big budget Disney musical and it’s completely bonkers. Annette Funicello stars as Mary, Mary Quite Contrary. She’s about to marry Tom the Piper’s Son — played by Tommy Sands — but the evil Barnaby (Ray Bolger) gets in the way so that he can get hitched to her himself. He hires ne’re-do-wells Gonzorgo (Henry Calvin) and Roderigo (Gene Sheldon) to toss Tommy in the sea. Instead they sell him to Gypsies. That’s the basic plot…for the first half of the film. After that, the movie completely switches gears as Mary, Tommy and her siblings wind up in Toyland helping the Toymaker (Ed Wynn) and his assistant Grumio (Tommy Kirk) create toys for Christmas with the bad guys waiting to strike.
As I said in a recent Photo Diary entry, I really enjoyed this Jack Donohue-directed movie the first time around. Then, I put it on for my parents and wife — all big Disney fans — to watch on New Year’s Eve and realized this story is poorly put together, all over the place and plain-old-nuts in many ways. That’s what I’m focusing on in this particular post, though I liked the film enough on the third viewing to also list some awesome moments in a post that will go up next week.
For what it’s worth, I’m not trying to nit pick or point out every little thing that feels outdated or silly to modern audiences. This was aimed at children, so I don’t care that Mary isn’t devastated by the news that her fiance is dead or the strange lemonade reference in the opening number. I also have no idea how much of these elements can be blamed on the original 1903 operetta. Anyway, without further ado, here are the nine craziest things about Babes In Toyland.
If my math is correct — I CAN do the sums! — this film takes place over basically three days. The opening number, Barnaby’s plan, Tom’s kidnapping and all that hits on the first day. Day two has Mary “finding out” about Tom, Barnaby’s proposal, his crazy dance, her “Sum” number, the discovery of the missing sheep, her acceptance of Barnaby’s proposal, the big Gypsy performance, Tom’s return and the scenes in the Forest of No Return. The third has them finally getting to Toyland and the climax with the marriage taking place some time after. That’s a lot to pack into three days and can throw off audiences who are looking for these cartoonish characters to have more realistic reactions to what’s going on around them.
Barnaby’s “Castle In Spain” Dance Number
Barnaby’s major way of attracting Mary is to dance around like a deranged peacock for five full (bloated?) minutes while she sits their mourning her true love. Sure, the song part makes sense, but if you can tell me the point of this dance break, please do because it’s lost on me.
The Portrayal Of Gypsies
I don’t have the knowledge, experience or perspective to dive very deeply into this subject, but the only information offered about Gypsies in this film are that they purchase people and dance around. There’s also the far-from-flattering lyrics for “Floretta.” Yeah, no.
Speaking of the “Floretta” number, it features the return of Tom. Here’s where the film’s crazy timing comes into play. If I’m reading it right, Tom has only been gone for one day and yet he’s not only learned this complicated song and dance routine, but also ingratiated himself to this group to the point where they let him take the spotlight. Like many aspects of this film, it feels like an idea quickly translated into live action without much thought or explanation.
It Takes 62 Minutes To Get To Toyland
In the director’s commentary for Mallrats, Kevin Smith talks about a version of the film that took about 20 minutes to get to the mall. He received a note basically saying that you can’t take that much time to get to the title location. Disney apparently didn’t care about such things back in the early 60s because it takes an hour for even a mention of the place. In fact, up to that point, the film follows a completely different story before shifting gears. In other words, the pacing of the whole film just doesn’t work.
The Toy Machine Scene
Once Mary, Tom and the kids do get to Toyland, things aren’t looking so good. The Toymaker is doing his thing when his assistant Grumio shows off his latest invention: an automated toymaking machine. Plug in what you want and out it comes. It’s perfect, but Grumio overlooked one important detail: his boss is a jackass who demands credit for things he didn’t do and pushes the machine too far and disaster ensues. It’s a neat idea, but ultimately pointless. Presumably, the idea is that the destruction of the machine will put The Toymaker behind schedule and need our heroes’ help, but he wasn’t planning on using it anyway, so that doesn’t make any sense. It also drives Grumio to make the shrink ray which is crucial to the last 20 minutes or so, but, like many of the scenes in this film, could have just been explained with a line of dialog instead of a distracting number. Still, I like this idea and just wish it actually made sense in the movie.
As I mentioned above, Toymaker ruins the toy machine. However, desire for credit and over-enthusiasm aren’t unconscionable offenses. However, telling Grumio to kill himself is. After the explosion he says: “Go! Get out of here! Go on. Go to your room and invent something to destroy yourself.” You almost don’t realize how mean he is because Ed Wynn is such a wonderful actor and he wins us back later when he’s making fun of Barnaby during the intended marriage scene, but man, what a jerk.
Sure, “I Can’t Do The Sum” is far from a classic. I can see people railing against it by interpreting the lyrics as a “women can’t do math” message, but I prefer to give it the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to Mary being bad at it herself. Hey, I get that and agree with her. Math sucks.
“Just A Toy” is a far worse song with an awful message. It starts off okay with Mary discussing an actual toy that will bring joy to a child. Things switch gets when Tom joins in and starts referring to her as his toy. Female submission, the objectification of women and male empowerment through said objectification are no good, even when conveyed by two such adorable leads singing so sweetly.
It’s Just Barely A Christmas Movie
As my buddy Brett White and I discussed in our special Christmas-themed podcast, some movies are definitely Christmas moves while others are set during that time. Babes In Toyland isn’t either and yet it kinda-sorta is a Christmas film. Heck, it was actually released on December 14, involves toymaking, mentions the holiday and the toy soldiers from the end still lead Disney’s Christmas parade, but at no point did it FEEL like a Christmas movie during any of my three viewings, even given the somewhat Christmasy wedding scene at the end.
My wife and I disagree on this one and I’m sure some of you will too. Let me know what you think about this and my other points in the comments and stay tuned next week for the list of elements from this movie I legitimately enjoy.