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Babes in Toyland (1961) DVD Review

Babes in Toyland (1961) movie poster Babes in Toyland

Theatrical Release: December 14, 1961 / Running Time: 106 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Jack Donohue

Cast: Ray Bolger (Barnaby), Tommy Sands (Tom Piper), Annette Funicello (Mary Contrary), Ed Wynn (Toymaker), Tommy Kirk (Grumio), Kevin Corcoran (Boy Blue), Henry Calvin (Gonzorgo), Gene Sheldon (Roderigo), Mary McCarty (Mother Goose), Ann Jillian (Bo Peep), Brian Corcoran (Willie Winkie)

Songs: "I Can't Do the Sum", "Just a Toy", "Floretta", "Castle in Spain", "We Won't Be Happy Till We Get It", "Lemonade", "Just a Whisper Away", "March of the Toys", "Toyland", "The Workshop Song", "The Forest of No Return", "Slowly He Sank Into the Sea"

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Review by MickeyMouseboy and MichaeLeah

By the early 1960s, there was little Walt Disney hadn't captured on film. Nearly every genre had been covered, except for the live action musical. Babes in Toyland, a subject Walt had considered
for one of his earliest animated films, would launch the genre for Disney's studio. While it was not as successful as Disney had anticipated, less than three years later the studio released their next contribution to this genre: the practically perfect Mary Poppins.

Rooted in the Victor Herbert classic musical of the same name, Babes in Toyland is a delightful journey into the world of nursery rhymes with a special stop at Toyland itself. The film is unquestionably entertaining but it fails to reach beyond the fantasy to touch the viewer's heart.

Babes in Toyland leaves a lot to be desired from the cast. The film is so light-hearted that it is impossible to take any of the characters seriously. Both Tom Piper (Tommy Sands) and Mary Contrary (Annette Fenicello) are just there. Barnaby (Ray Bolger), the villain, is entertaining and never frightening. (You may recognize him as the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.) His two wacky henchmen, Roderigo (Gene Sheldon) and Gonzorgo (Henry Calvin), are goofy and reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy in their 1934 version of this story. The Toymaker is played perfectly by Ed Wynn, who manages to balance humor and serious moments very nicely. The Toymaker's assistant, Grumio (Tommy Kirk), serves as a fantastic sidekick.

The framing of the opening credits suggests a widescreen presentation should have been offered. Tom Piper (Tommy Sands) and Mary Contrary (Annette Funicello) share an intimate moment in the garden.

The soundtrack comes straight from the hand of Mr. Herbert and is really a mixed bag. There are several very nice songs; however, they occasionally slow down the pace of the film and bog it down. As one of the most memorable songs, "A Castle in Spain" has been included on various Disney compilations over the years.

The movie opens with Mother Goose (Mary McCarty) and her pet goose, Sylvester, introducing us to a world called Mother Goose Village. There, Mary Contrary is preparing to wed Tom Piper. The entire village is singing and being merry. Little do they know that dark clouds are coming over Mother Goose Village.

Up on the mountaintop, Barnaby looks upon the happy village in dismay, for he wants to make Mary Contrary his bride and gain control over her estate. He hires two henchmen to dispose of Tom in hopes that Mary will resign to marrying him. But this movie wouldn't be interesting if the main hero dies, would it? Barnaby's bumbling henchmen greedily sell Tom to a caravan of Gypsies, thinking they can make a double profit. Alas, their greediness soon spoils Barnaby's plan!

The wicked Barnaby has two bumbling henchmen. With Tommy Kirk as his assistant, who can blame the Toymaker (Ed Wynn) for being a little absent-minded?

Mary initially refuses Barnaby's offer
but after her sheep mysteriously disappear (courtesy of Barnaby's bumbling henchmen) she realizes her seemingly blight economic state has forced her to marry the villain. The rest of the film unfolds as a series of adventures, involving Bo Peep, the Toymaker who is having great difficult making enough toys for Christmas, and trees that can walk, talk, and sing in the Forest of No Return.

Traditionally, Disney released an excellent and very successful picture every Christmas. Walt oversaw a great deal of promotion for this film, including an entire episode of his weekly "Disneyland" television series. Yet despite great special effects and a fun story, this film was only modestly successful. It wasn't a flop but it didn't achieve what Walt Disney had originally envisioned. His next musical would be a major improvement.

Buy Babes in Toyland on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.33:1 Fullscreen
Dolby 2.0 Surround (English)
Subtitles: English
Closed Captioned
Release Date: September 3, 2002
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99
White Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

Here's where our reviewers disagree. MickeyMouseboy declares that the film is not presented in its original widescreen theatrical aspect ratio: "This is clearly a pan & scan job; a back cover picture of the scene where Barnaby comes to congratulate Mary is in widescreen compared to the scene on the DVD. Some information is missing on the sides of the frame, such as the wall that's out of sight until the character moves to the far right. The same goes for the stairs on the far left of the frame."

While it's true that in the early '60s, Disney was usually exhibiting live action films in the 1.66:1 or 1.75:1 ratios, MichaeLeah believes "there is a possibility that this DVD is open-matte. Throughout the course of the film, there is open space at the top and bottom of the frame. There is just one scene where two shots look like they should be slightly wider. Those shots might be the result of cropping, or it could just be tight framing. A widescreen television might be used to approximate the presumable theatrical ratio by zooming in on the picture with the television to matte the picture and zooming out with the DVD player to compensate for overscan. Be warned this method will diminish the quality of the picture."

Ray Bolger strikes back! The Main Menu makes use of vintage poster imagery.

Without any notices from Disney to theaters at our fingertips, Babes in Toyland is yet another one of the studio's live action films which may or may not be reformatted from its intended ratio for DVD. For now, there is no definite conclusion on whether the disc is open-matte, pan-and-scan, a mix of the two, or presenting the Academy Ratio the film may have been shot for.

One thing that both reviewers agreed on is that like many catalogue titles, the movie was not digitally remastered and the picture shows its age. Scratches and grain show up on the print throughout the film, but are never overwhelming. Sharpness was not an issue. The colors are bright, but not excessively so. The track is crisp, but it also shows the film's age.

Audio is conveyed in a Dolby Surround track, but sound is mostly limited to the front speakers.
All things considered, this mix is satisfactory since nothing in this movie would benefit from a 5.1 remix.

EXTRAS

None whatsoever! For being Walt's first musical we get nothing but English subtittles, a messy print and not even the original aspect ratio! Whatever happened to the Theatrical Trailer or even an interview with Ms. Funicello? Sadly, this is not a film that will get a Special Edition treatment anytime soon.

It's worth mentioning that the spectacular two-disc Vault Disney DVD release of The Parent Trap includes an excerpt from a Disneyland episode of called "The Titlemakers." It shows stars Tommy Sands and Annette Funicello taking time off from Babes to record the catchy opening Parent Trap title tune and explain to an inquistive voice from above.

Two Corcorans and trees that talk -- what more could one want? It's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with Sands & Funicello

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Babes in Toyland offers some catchy tunes here and there, but nothing more. You don't actually care if Tom's dead or not or if Mary goes off with Barnaby, and that is the movie's weakness. Still, if you enjoy fantasy, light-hearted entertainment, and Walt-era live action Disney, you might want to check this film out.

A mediocre catalogue release, the DVD leaves much to be desired. Those who haven't seen this film, rent it! For those of you who have fond memories like me, you will want to add this to your collection. Just don't expect much for the low SRP of $14.99.

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Related Reviews:
Also Starring Annette Funicello: Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse Club The Best of Mickey Mouse Club
Early '60s Disney: The Parent Trap (1961) Greyfriars Bobby (1961) Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus

Live Action Disney Musicals:
Mary Poppins (1964) The Happiest Millionaire (1967) The One and Only, Genuine Original Family Band (1968)
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) Newsies (1992) Enchanted (2007)

More Tommy Kirk on Disney DVD:
Old Yeller & Savage Sam: 2-Movie Collection (1957, 1963) Bon Voyage! (1962)
Son of Flubber (1963) The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964)

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Reviewed February 9, 2005.