Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that runs every Thursday and celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
There are three distinct camps when it comes to Disney's 1961 Technicolor musical, 'Babes in Toyland.' Many Victor Herbert enthusiasts despise the Mickey Mouse extravaganza's saccharine spectacle, Laurel and Hardy fans call it a poor remake of 1934's 'March of the Wooden Soldiers' and then there are those who find it undeniably magical. While there's certainly a case to be made for all three perspectives, it's hard to peg 'Babes in Toyland' as a complete wash. When it comes to Christmas stories, they don't come more colorful than this. The bright and cheerful sets and costumes are dizzying, but if you can catch your breath between the songs and dancing there's a lot of charm and artistry to be admired in this storybook classic.
At times, 'Babes in Toyland' feels like several movies squashed into one. We're treated to a fairy tale element (the film's characters are all modeled after Mother Goose nursery rhymes), a love/revenge plot, large-scale musical production numbers and finally a Christmas storyline thrown into the mix to top things off. It doesn't come together as neatly as it should, but the narrative provides us with a candyland of visuals to choose from as far as frames go.
Mary Contrary ('Mickey Mouse Club' darling, Annette Funicello) and Tom Piper (Tommy Sands -- perhaps most famous for being an Elvis lookalike and marrying Nancy Sinatra) are about to embark on a fairy tale wedding, but the miserly Barnaby (played by Ray Bolger -- known for his role in 'The Wizard of Oz' as the scarecrow) has other plans. He concocts a story, along with the help of Laurel and Hardy lookalikes Gonzorgo (Henry Calvin) and Rodrigo (Gene Sheldon), that gets Tom out of the picture so Barnaby can marry Mary and hoard her mysterious inheritance (it's so mysterious, even she doesn't know about it).
Eventually, Mary is reunited with Tom (he's been working a drag show at a gypsy camp, apparently) and the two set off through a talking forest with a group of children who are searching for some lost sheep (yep, belonging to Little Bo Peep). Next thing we know it's almost Christmas and the wandering gang has happened upon a jovial Toymaker's shop (Ed Wynn -- the vaudevillian actor with the famously goofy voice). Inside, they spy a toy-making machine that doesn't require human hands and a special kind of ray gun that shrinks anything you shoot at into a toy-sized plaything. Barnaby, who has been following Mary with the hopes of still getting her money, uses the gun to shrink Tom. It's then that Tom wages war on Barnaby with the help of a battalion of wooden toy soldiers, so he can return to normal size and finally marry the girl of his dreams.
While there are several frames that showcase 'Babes in Toyland's' over the top design, it seemed necessary to select one that contained a little of everything -- just like the movie's story. In the above frame, we get that technicolor pop with some of Disney's beautiful matte painting and a little animation/FX wizardry. The Toymaker is delighted by his assistant Grumio's (played by another Disney favorite, Tommy Kirk) invention, but puts the machine to the test when he sets it on overdrive. In this frame, the machine has started to belt out, "HELP!" after spewing out dozens of broken toys from its chute. Grumio tries to stop it before the whole thing blows up -- which it, indeed, does.
Ward Kimball, one of Disney's famed "Nine Old Men" (the studio's first animators, who worked on Disney's most legendary films), was tapped to helm the musical -- already having a vested interest in the project as co-writer. Kimball was booted from 'Babes' by Walt Disney after the two squabbled over some production decisions and director Jack Donohue was brought on board. Kimball's work can still be seen, however, in the stop-motion toy sequences. It's a sad story, because the writer/animator spent months enthusiastically developing the creative side of 'Babes' -- a movie that seemed to be a perfect match for his quirky, comic style. Who knows how much more eccentricity there would have been in a scene like this one had he been able to finish his work. Still, there's an exciting energy and imagination in this frame that demonstrates why many people, young and old, are captivated by Disney's first live-action musical, fantasy tale.