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Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks With a Circus DVD Review
Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus Movie Poster Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks With a Circus

Theatrical Release: January 21, 1960 / Running Time: 95 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Charles Barton

Cast: Kevin Corcoran (Toby Tyler), Henry Calvin (Ben Cotter), Gene Sheldon (Sam Treat), Bob Sweeney (Harry Tupper), Richard Eastham (Colonel Sam Castle), Mr. Stubbs (Himself), James Drury (Jim Weaver), Barbara Beaird (Mademoiselle Jeanette), Dennis Joel (Monsieur Ajax), Edith Evanson (Aunt Olive), Tom Fadden (Uncle Daniel), Ollie Wallace (Bandleader)

Song: "Biddle-Dee-Dee"


Anyway you look at it, Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus is an old-fashioned production. Ushered to theaters by Walt Disney at the beginning of 1960, the film has as its basis the popular 1880 children's novel of the same name and a temporal setting of thereabouts. Perhaps it should be surprising, then, that a simple outing from all these years ago has remained so fresh, but this thought only reaches you in the film's aftermath. For during its 95 minutes, the cozy drama of Toby Tyler has your full attention. It achieves a carnival atmosphere that delights the senses, reverting all viewers to childhood and then holding them captive with a heartfelt and memorable tale.

Toby Tyler (Kevin Corcoran) is a little boy who has been dealt a hand of misfortune. His parents are dead and life with his Uncle Daniel (Tom Fadden) and Aunt Olive (Edith Evanson) seems fairly miserable from the few glimpses we get. Early on, the remarkably mean uncle calls his ward to come home (presumably to "do chores"), but Toby, enchanted by the poster announcing the arrival of Colonel Sam Castle's Circus, has other plans. He can't afford to check out the main attractions on the grounds, and his uncle disposes of the ticket he receives as charity, but there is something that has the lad soon returning to the site.

Intrigued by the smooth-talking Mr. Tupper (Bob Sweeney), Toby decides to enlist with the circus as a concessionaire. It's really kind of a no-brainer decision for him: the alluring circus atmosphere and some money or a grumpy uncle and tears. Tupper recognizes that most any youth faced with such options would enthusiastically join the circus staff and this is the first of several advantages the unscrupulous top-hatted vendor takes to turn the boy's lack of experience into Tupper's personal profit.

Toby Tyler smiles at the sight of the circus making its way into town. Harry Tupper makes something clear to young Toby.

Fortunately, for Toby, not all of the colorful personalities he encounters at his new traveling workplace are as opportunistic. Among the handful of other characters he soon meets are Ben Cotter (Henry Calvin, of Disney's "Zorro" series), a gruff but fatherly figure (who we later learn struts his stuff as a strongman of sorts) and Sam Treat (Gene Sheldon, also of "Zorro"), an eager-to-entertain clown. Selling peanuts and popcorn while the fun goes on behind him isn't quite Toby's dream occupation, particularly with that shyster Tupper riding the boy and taking half of his tips, but money is still coming in and the environment's magnetism hasn't worn off. Plus, there's Mr. Stubbs, a mischievous but faithful chimpanzee who becomes as close a friend to Toby as any other performer.

While Toby finds selling snacks acceptable, his eyes begin to draw him inside the ring, where the action really happens. A lie and an injured child entertainer later, Toby gets his shot at performing. The final act of the film covers his training and his battle with the increasingly tempting option to simply run away home away from his challenges. In its latter portions, the film effectively delivers suspense and avoids predictability, even if one fears or expects a tidy, saccharine conclusion. Despite basking in small town nostalgia, a child's innocence, and even a photogenic older monkey, Toby Tyler gladly doesn't settle for plain old sentimentality or cuteness. Its uncanny ability to do this, while holding captive the attentions of viewers of any age, distinguish the film as one of Walt Disney's better live action films.

In the title role, Kevin Corcoran does not display the widest range of acting abilities, but he embodies a protagonist that's easy to sympathize with, and his limited expressions are far easier to swallow than the juvenile antics he'd employ for Swiss Family Robinson and Bon Voyage!. As subdued as his lead performance may be, the cute, chubby-cheeked "Moochie" is every bit as likable as his older, more polished cast members like Calvin and Sheldon. Even detestable characters like Harry Tupper, the unfriendly Uncle Daniel, and the momentarily-loathed Jim Weaver (James Drury, of Pollyanna) are brought to life three-dimensionally and not merely as cartoon obstacles like the nemeses of later wacky Disney comedies. Though the world depicted in the film seems to be from a wide-eyed child's point of view, a handful of elements of realism make significant contributions to Toby Tyler's success. This presence of flawed, gray-shaded individuals and the fact that children appear to do their own stunts raises the film's believability, especially since any wires are very hard to spot.

He's got the costume and all, but Toby doesn't seem too interested the actual vending part of the job. Big Ben Cotter is about to wake up Toby and his chimp friend Mr. Stubbs.

Watching this effective family-friendly drama of yesteryear makes me yearn for something comparable today. It's easy to appreciate Toby Tyler's style, tone, and pacing, which are all often hard to detect by modern standards. While anything but slow, the film's leisurely indulgence of the appealing circus atmosphere seems far more embraceable than that of films with today's editing sensibilities. Another attractive quality present is that not everything has to be spoken down to the audience. Patches of the film with no dialogue are as engaging as those which go for a chimp sight gag, and the little bit of subtlety goes a long way in endearing you to the film.

Toby Tyler may not aspire to great life-changing lessons, but as a simple but well-done drama, it works very well. This highly engaging production has not enjoyed the "classic" status of other early live action Disney films like Old Yeller, Pollyanna, or the Davy Crockett adventures, but maybe this DVD release can change to some degree, as it makes this film available to the masses for the first time since the 1988 VHS release and 1997 laserdisc went out of print years ago. In any event, you are encouraged to return to "when the day the Circus came to town was the biggest day of the year..."

Buy Toby Tyler from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.33:1 Fullscreen
Dolby Digital Mono (English)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
Release Date: August 2, 2005
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
White Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

The first thing to address in this department, as is the case for many old live action films presented on DVD in fullscreen, is the original aspect ratio issue. Toby Tyler is presented here in a 1.33:1 "fullscreen" transfer and whether or not that is correct leads us only to a question mark. Last August, when Darby O'Gill finally came to DVD, it was accompanied by a note to the effect that its fullscreen presentation was correct and that its theatrical run was merely matted to widescreen as part of cinema's efforts to differentiate its content from television. Unfortunately, no such clarification appears here, nor does a "This film has been modified from its original form" disclaimer that has rarely turned up lately on a Disney DVD even when it clearly should.

Toby turned up in theaters seven months after Darby, and later films of 1960 like Pollyanna and Swiss Family Robinson were clearly framed for and exhibited in widescreen. Amidst such confusion and conflicting information, I can't make a definitive statement on Toby's 4x3 presentation. The Academy Ratio framing does seem to be on the money; there are only a couple of shots that appear like they may have been cropped on the sides and there's not a particularly noticeable excess of frame space atop and bottom that would indicate an open matte transfer. While the DVD's visual dimensions may create a puzzle, it's not a particularly pressing or noticeable one.

Toby heeds Don Corleone's advice to "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer." Either that, or he's just nave. Sam the clown takes a look at Toby's performer costume and thinks it could use some work.

More importantly, the film has been satisfyingly remastered. The picture boasts wonderfully vibrant colors, appropriate sharpness, and a stunningly clean element. On very infrequent occasions, minor grain may waver towards excess. In addition, a couple of nighttime scenes pose problems: in one, the color fluctuates noticeably, and in the other, hues look unnaturally blue-tinted. Print intrusions are few and far between; there are some rare digital artifacts and the scarce scratch (which show up a bit more in the latter parts of the film). Overall, though not quite picture perfect, the disc's transfer does come close. For a forty-five year old movie and considering the spotty record Disney has in treating their live action catalogue, Toby's video presentation certainly pleases.

Like a majority of the pre-1980 live action catalogue titles, Toby Tyler employs two-channel Dolby Digital Mono audio. That is what most closely resembles the sound format its theatrical exhibition and it sufficiently serves the purpose on DVD. The most evident trait of the track may be the boisterous score which turns appropriately more introspective when the luster of the circus gives way to Toby's personal drama. Dialogue is clearly the product of late '50s film technologies, but it is adequately conveyed. Those hoping for a surround-tastic remix have demands that can't fully be met; such a simple production isn't crying out for channel separation and there's only so much that can be done without betraying the original monaural recordings.

"Toby Tyler"'s Main Menu screen. Nowhere on the DVD is the full title featured. I guess the marketing department finally answered the original question. The ringmaster Colonel Castle has a talk with Toby.

BONUS FEATURES and DESIGN

Unfortunately, this enjoyable Disney classic is accompanied by no bonus features. At the very least, a vintage trailer would have been nice. So would have been introductions from "The Mickey Mouse Club", where it was serialized during the early '60s syndicated run, or Walt Disney himself from his weekly anthology series (as was included for Johnny Tremain, concurrently released to DVD). Plus, star Kevin Corcoran has sat down with Disney in the past to reflect on Old Yeller's DVD, so something probably could have been arranged. Nonetheless, Toby upholds a barebones tradition which has been the case for the majority of Disney's live action catalogue.

The 16x9 menu screens resemble the look of old-fashioned circus posters, and each of the three pages are accompanied by appropriate instrumentals from the film's score. At the disc's start, previews play for Valiant, live action Disney movies on DVD (yes, that promo), the Old Yeller: 2-Movie Collection coming in November, and Disney's four forthcoming Muppet movie reissues (The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and Muppet Treasure Island) as part of Kermit's 50th Anniversary celebrations.

A monkey in a Disney movie? Now, that's just wacky! Mademoiselle Jeanette, Monsieur Toby, and Monsieur Stubbs take their bows to applause, while Monsieur Ajax presumably recuperates elsewhere to silence.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

At last, Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus has come to DVD and this 45-year-old film holds up as one of the better live action productions from Walt's time. Its character arcs, acting, and technical sensibilities may not be groundbreaking, but the simple story and turn-of-the-century circus setting are both extremely appealing, and have not been rendered any less potent with the passing of time. This adaptation wins you over with sincere low-key drama, leisurely but apt pacing, and a winning nostalgic feel. The DVD's fullscreen aspect ratio may warrant shrugged shoulders, but the terrific transfer merits applause, and even with no bonus features, the disc earns a recommendation on the basis of this enduring film.

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Related Reviews:
Also New to DVD: Johnny Tremain (1957)
Old Yeller (1957) Bon Voyage! (1962)
Savage Sam (1963) Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
The Best of The Mickey Mouse Club
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) Dumbo (1942)

The Book: Toby Tyler by James Otis Kaler

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Reviewed July 29, 2005.