Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Babes In Toyland

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Babes In Toyland

Music played an integral role at the Disney studio practically from its inception. From “Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?” to “Someday My Prince Will Come” to “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”, Disney films made (and continue to make) invaluable contributions to the Great American Songbook. But by 1961, even though the studio had been producing live-action features for over a decade, they still had not attempted a full-on, big-budget live-action musical. With Babes In Toyland, Walt made his first attempt at rectifying that oversight.

Not that there weren’t still plenty of original tunes flowing out of the Disney recording studio. Everything from Ten Who Dared to The Parent Trap had managed to shoehorn an original song or two. But these songs weren’t as seamlessly integrated into their productions as the songs in Disney’s animated classics. It’s impossible to imagine Snow White or Pinocchio without the songs. The only people who would miss “A Whale Of A Tale” if it had been cut from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea would be the theatre owners who probably enjoyed a boost in concession sales during the scene.

For a while, it appeared that Walt’s first live-action musical would be an adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. The rights to The Wizard Of Oz were tightly controlled by MGM. But in 1954, Walt was able to secure the rights to the other thirteen books in the series. He began developing a project called The Rainbow Road To Oz as a showcase for the Mickey Mouse Club’s Mouseketeers. Darlene Gillespie was to play Dorothy. Annette Funicello was Ozma. Walt originally thought of it as a television production but as work went on, he began to think it might work as a feature.

Eventually, Walt decided to abandon the Oz project. No one’s exactly sure why, although one can assume that the MGM movie cast a huge shadow. There’s no way that Walt would have gone ahead with Rainbow Road To Oz unless he was absolutely sure that it could live up to or surpass the gold standard set by Judy Garland and friends. Judging by the segments that aired on Disneyland’s fourth-anniversary show, Rainbow Road To Oz did not. Check it out for yourself. It’s pretty weird.

(The Disney studio did eventually return to Oz with Return To Oz in 1985, a genuinely bizarre film that proved deeply upsetting for an entire generation of young people. I love it with all of me and can’t wait to include it in this column.)

At around the same time that The Rainbow Road To Oz was falling apart, Walt announced his intentions to make an animated feature based on Victor Herbert’s 1903 operetta Babes In Toyland. Herbert’s show had also been filmed previously, most notably as a 1934 feature starring Laurel and Hardy. Walt put animator Ward Kimball in charge of the project and Kimball worked on the script with storyman Joe Rinaldi. Kimball and Rinaldi had a hard time cracking the project. They streamlined the complicated storyline as much as they could, turning it into a romantic triangle between fairytale lovebirds Tom Piper and Mary Contrary and the evil Barnaby, who wants to marry Mary for her inheritance.

By late 1959, Walt had reconceived Babes In Toyland as a live-action musical. Lowell S. Hawley, who had written for Zorro and Swiss Family Robinson, was brought on board to rewrite Kimball and Rinaldi’s script for live-action. Jack Donohue, a Broadway choreographer and TV director responsible for several variety shows featuring such stars as Frank Sinatra and Red Skelton, was hired to direct. Kimball, who’d had several disagreements with Walt over the scripts and casting, was sent back to the animation department.

Although she wouldn’t get a chance to rule Oz as Ozma, Annette Funicello still got her biggest movie showcase to date as Mary. Annette was a huge star on TV and had even had a few hit records. But so far, her only big-screen appearance had been a small supporting role in The Shaggy Dog. Walt believed she was ready for bigger things. At the time of Babes In Toyland, Annette was so famous that she didn’t even need to be credited under her full name. She’s simply “Annette”. Everybody already knew who she was.

The same probably couldn’t be said about her costar, teen idol Tommy Sands. Sands made a big splash right out of the gate, starring as an Elvis-like singing sensation in an episode of Kraft Television Theatre called, appropriately enough, The Singin’ Idol. His signature number on that show, “Teen-Age Crush”, made it all the way to #2 on the Billboard chart. 20th Century Fox produced a feature-film remake of The Singin’ Idol called Sing, Boy, Sing but while Sands received some praise for his performance, the movie was a flop.

Nevertheless, Sands continued plugging away at both his acting and recording careers (he also married Nancy Sinatra in 1960). It makes perfect sense why Walt would cast him in Babes In Toyland. He was popular enough to make it seem like the studio wasn’t completely out of touch with the kids but not so popular that he’d be too cool for a Disney movie. Walt certainly made the most of Sands’ short time on the lot, recruiting him to sing the title song to The Parent Trap with Annette.

The Oz connections continue with the casting of Ray Bolger as Barnaby. The former Scarecrow had kept busy on stage (winning a Tony Award for his performance in Where’s Charley?) and television, where his sitcom Where’s Raymond? was eventually retitled The Ray Bolger Show. His only Disney appearance offers him a rare chance to play the bad guy and he has fun with it, playing to the cheap seats with his stovepipe hat and purple-lined cape.

Most of the rest of the cast was filled out with members of the Disney Stock Players. Ed Wynn does his Ed Wynn thing as the zany Toymaker. Tommy Kirk, still stuck in the “what-the-hell-do-we-do-with-this-kid” phase of his Disney career, appears as Wynn’s apprentice. Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon, fresh off appearances in Zorro and Toby Tyler, are again teamed up as the bumbling crooks Gonzorgo and Roderigo. Kevin Corcoran shows up as Little Boy Blue. Perhaps hedging his bets against Moochie eventually hitting puberty, Walt also recruited Kevin’s brother, Brian Corcoran (who had appeared in a few episodes of Daniel Boone and Texas John Slaughter on TV), to add some additional precociousness as Willie Winkie.

The newest member of the Disney family was young Ann Jillian, who appears as Bo Peep. Jillian’s Disney tenure was relatively brief. She’d go on to appear in the TV production Sammy, The Way-Out Seal. But Jillian was one of the rare child stars who became much more famous as an adult, starring on the sitcom It’s A Living, as Mae West in a popular TV-movie, and as herself in the made-for-TV biopic The Ann Jillian Story. She’s still out there on the lecture circuit discussing her experiences as a breast cancer survivor, proof that not every child star’s career ends in tragedy.

Theatrical release poster for Babes In Toyland

Walt spared no expense on Babes In Toyland. He spent years developing the script. The production cost in excess of $3 million. George Bruns and Mel Leven, who had recently made a splash with their music for One Hundred And One Dalmatians, were brought on board to update Victor Herbert’s music for the swinging sixties. Cast and crew alike were stocked with top professionals from both inside and outside the studio.

So why is the movie itself so terrible?

The trouble starts right away as an inexpertly performed goose puppet named Sylvester is thrust through a velvet curtain to address the audience. This is no Jim Henson creation. It’s a cheap looking puppet whose beak movements don’t even sync up with the dialogue. Sylvester is held throughout by Mother Goose (played by musical theatre performer Mary McCarty). Mother Goose and Sylvester bring us up to speed, welcoming us to Mother Goose Village and inviting us to the wedding of Tom and Mary. The whole thing feels a bit like a play performed by an amateur children’s theatre group and the movie never manages to rise above that level.

The opening number foreshadows the table-setting theatrics of “Belle” from Beauty And The Beast, introducing all the characters and showing us around the elaborate but somehow still chintzy-looking sets. But “Mother Goose Village and Lemonade” has none of the charm and sweep of “Belle”. The fact that it morphs into an inexplicable tribute to lemonade for some reason should tell you all you need to know.

Babes In Toyland soundtrack album cover

Bruns and Leven were both responsible for some terrific songs but virtually none of them are in Babes In Toyland. Annette’s big number, “I Can’t Do The Sum”, is essentially all about how bad she is at math because she’s just a girl. It’s livened up by some neat visuals, including Annette dividing into four multicolored doppelgangers, but it’s still in service of a truly lousy song. Most of the other songs are just forgettable.

There is one good song in the batch, Ray Bolger’s “Castle In Spain”. I first encountered the song on the great Hal Willner-produced album Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films where it was performed by Buster Poindexter. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Babes In Toyland and had no idea what movie the song was from. I still prefer the Buster Poindexter cover but Ray Bolger’s version is fun, too.

(If you’re unfamiliar with Stay Awake, I highly recommend tracking it down. Other highlights include Tom Waits’ take on “Heigh Ho (The Dwarfs’ Marching Song)”, Los Lobos on “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)” and The Replacements tearing through “Cruella De Vil”. Oddly enough, Buster Poindexter (a.k.a. David Johansen) will not be back in this column, despite the fact that his voice is ideally suited to animation. He did appear on an episode of The Magical World Of Disney, performing at the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park Grand Opening, but that’s the extent of his involvement with the studio.)

Babes In Toyland has a lot of problems: the mediocre music, the non-existent character development, the off-putting production design and visual effects. But the movie’s fatal flaw is that for the first time, a Walt Disney production feels like it’s talking down to its intended audience. Walt Disney was in the business of making family entertainment. At his best, he made films that are universal in their appeal. Babes In Toyland is specifically directed toward young children. Very young. Ann Jillian would have been around 10 or 11 at the time she appeared in this and she would have already aged out of the target audience. The whole movie feels forced and condescending in a way we don’t typically associate with Disney.

Released in time for Christmas 1961 (although I wouldn’t really call this a Christmas movie, it’s more Christmas-adjacent), Babes In Toyland wasn’t exactly a bomb but it certainly didn’t do as well as anyone had hoped. The movie did manage to snag a couple of Oscar nominations, for Bill Thomas’s costumes and Bruns’s score, but it lost both to a far more successful musical, West Side Story. Both Thomas and Bruns will be back in this column and both will again be Oscar nominees for their work on Disney films.

Even today, the Laurel and Hardy version is still the best film adaptation of Babes In Toyland. The source material continues to confound those brave enough to attempt to film it, resulting in some truly weird spectacles. In 1986, Drew Barrymore starred in a TV remake alongside Richard Mulligan as Barnaby, Pat Morita as the Toymaker and Keanu Frickin’ Reeves as Jack-Be-Nimble. It’s…um…it’s something, alright.

Never one to live in the past, Walt certainly didn’t linger on the failure of Babes In Toyland. As usual, he had already moved on to his next musical project. Earlier in 1961, he had finally been able to persuade author P.L. Travers to let him have the film rights to her Mary Poppins books. Walt would take a more hands-on approach with this one and the results would be a whole lot better.

VERDICT: You have to ask? Oh, it’s a big-time Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Swiss Family Robinson

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Swiss Family Robinson

Swiss Family Robinson is a difficult movie to evaluate from a modern perspective. This is only surprising in that most of Disney’s biggest hits have aged extremely well. Walt’s animated classics have remained timeless. The most popular live-action films may require a bit more effort but you can still see what audiences responded to, even if the effect is now somewhat diminished. But Swiss Family Robinson, the fourth highest-grossing film of 1960 behind Spartacus, Psycho and Exodus, is a textbook case of “maybe you had to be there”. Maybe it’s the wave of remakes and copycats that washed up in its wake. Or maybe it’s just that the novelty of finding yourself isolated with your entire family doesn’t seem like such a fantasy in 2021.

Walt and producer Bill Anderson had been kicking around the idea of adapting Johann Wyss’s 1812 novel for a while. They’d both seen RKO’s 1940 version starring Thomas Mitchell and thought it was ripe for the Disney treatment. They considered producing it for television, which makes sense given the episodic nature of the story. Eventually Anderson figured out how to turn it into a movie by introducing the ever-present threat of pirates, an enemy that doesn’t factor into Wyss’s book at all.

Perhaps inspired by the Swiss air, Disney and Anderson revisited the idea while on location in Switzerland for Third Man On The Mountain. They approached that film’s director, Ken Annakin, about Swiss Family Robinson. Annakin picked up a copy of the book and couldn’t for the life of him figure out why they were so gung-ho about this particular story. Still, he agreed to take it on and reportedly used the 1940 movie as a template of “what not to do”.

(Walt would eventually buy the rights to the 1940 movie with the sole purpose of keeping the film out of circulation. Ironically, it’s now available on Disney+ and pops up as a recommendation alongside the Disney version, exactly the kind of comparison Walt was trying to avoid.)

It wasn’t difficult for Annakin to differentiate his movie from the earlier version. Instead of a black-and-white, studio-bound picture, the Disney version would be shot on location in Technicolor and Panavision. Where the 1940 film remained relatively faithful to the book, Annakin and screenwriter Lowell S. Hawley (a Zorro writer making the leap to features) essentially tossed Wyss’s novel aside. Survival is almost beside the point in the Disney version. At the very least, it’s simply assumed. There’s never any question whether or not the family is going to make it. Here, the Robinsons’ primary concerns are comfort and entertainment.

Swiss Family Robinson book-and-record set

The cast was made up almost entirely of familiar Disney faces. James MacArthur, who had made his Disney debut with 1958’s The Light In The Forest and was most recently seen in Kidnapped, starred as Fritz, the eldest son. This will be MacArthur’s final appearance in this column. He’d return to the studio once more in 1967 to star in the three-part Willie And The Yank (released theatrically overseas as Mosby’s Marauders) for Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color. The next year, he was cast as Danny “Dan-O” Williams on Hawaii Five-O, a role that would make him a TV icon and extremely rich. He’d essentially retire after leaving Hawaii Five-O in 1979, working whenever he felt like it on stage or in guest spots on TV shows like The Love Boat. James MacArthur passed away in 2010 at the age of 72.

Fritz’s younger siblings, Ernst and Francis, were played by Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, once again playing on-screen brothers after Old Yeller and The Shaggy Dog. Swiss Family Robinson actually marked a homecoming for Kirk, who had been temporarily let go from the studio after The Shaggy Dog. He was developing into an awkward, gangly teenager and the studio couldn’t figure out what to do with him. But after The Shaggy Dog turned into a surprise hit, Disney decided they wanted to keep him in the family. This column still hasn’t seen the last of either Kirk or Corcoran.

Janet Munro was reunited with MacArthur, her Third Man On The Mountain costar, as Roberta, another shipwrecked victim of the pirates rescued by Fritz and Ernst. Munro was also nearing the end of her Disney contract. She and MacArthur were to be teamed again on the comedy Bon Voyage!, but when production was delayed she was reassigned to The Horsemasters, another TV production given an overseas theatrical release.

The Horsemasters brought Munro back home to England, where she stayed and starred in such films as The Day The Earth Caught Fire and Life For Ruth. Life For Ruth netted her a BAFTA Award nomination but the movie was a flop. In 1963, she married actor Ian Hendry. They had two daughters but it was not a happy relationship. Between her tempestuous marriage and floundering career, Munro began drinking heavily. Munro and Hendry divorced in 1971 but irreparable damage had already been done to both her career and her health. Janet Munro died of a heart attack in 1972. She was just 38 years old.

Mother Robinson (neither parent is given an actual name) was played by Dorothy McGuire. McGuire had already appeared as Kirk and Corcoran’s on-screen mom in Old Yeller. She has quite a bit less to do here than in her previous Disney outing. In Old Yeller, she was essentially a single parent while Fess Parker went off to tend to man’s business. Here, she’s in a more passive maternal role, worrying about her kids’ safety and tending to the cooking and the sewing while Father and the boys take care of everything else.

Even though John Mills had never appeared in a Disney project before, this wasn’t his first time on a Disney set. He’d played chaperone to daughter Hayley while she filmed Pollyanna. Father Mills never became as ubiquitous a Disney presence as Daughter Mills. He’s terrific here but as the 1960s went on, Disney’s focus became increasingly American. I’m sure if there had been a need for British father figures, Mills might have become as familiar to Disney fans as Fred MacMurray.

The Robinsons are emigrating to New Guinea when they’re hit by a trifecta of disasters. Pirates attack, forcing the ship to flee into a storm that the Robinsons’ cowardly crew can’t handle, causing them to abandon ship. All of this happens before the movie even starts with the storm playing out under the opening credits. The next day, they discover they’re marooned off the shore of a tropical paradise that is miraculously free of people but teeming with the kind of exotic wildlife typically only found in zoos or roaming the grounds of an eccentric millionaire. These animals are in addition to the two Great Danes and assorted livestock they manage to rescue from the ship.

Once the Robinsons make it to shore, shelter understandably becomes their first priority. Rescue is a distant second. Father raises a quarantine flag on the wreck of their ship. This succeeds in scaring off the pirates, who believe it to be a plague ship, but it would presumably also scare off any would-be rescuers. Father opts to build an elaborate treehouse, ostensibly to protect the family from tigers and such. But it’s also far enough away from the beach that no passing ships would spot them. Again, pirates. But you also start to get the idea that Father isn’t really all that interested in leaving.

For her part, Mother is primarily concerned with young Francis’s safety around animals and the treehouse. Fortunately, the boys are such skilled scavengers (and Ernst is a gifted engineer) that those fears are quickly allayed. Father and Fritz even manage to rescue the ship’s pipe organ and Ernst constructs a fully functioning kitchen and bathroom complete with running water and icebox. All that’s left for Mother to do is pick out the curtains.

Eventually Fritz and Ernst persuade their parents to allow them to circumnavigate the island in order to get some idea of where they’ve ended up. Along the way, they again encounter the pirates, who have captured a British sea captain (Cecil Parker) and his cabin boy. The Robinsons rescue the lad and come to find out that “he” is actually the captain’s granddaughter, disguised to protect her from the pirates’ unwholesome intent. This is really the only hint we get that the pirates are capable of doing much more than pillage.

Swiss Family Robinson comic book adaptation published by Gold Key Comics

Legendary Japanese star Sessue Hayakawa, a recent Oscar nominee for The Bridge On The River Kwai, was cast as Kuala, the pirate chief. Hayakawa had been one of the biggest icons of the silent era and the first American movie star of Asian descent. His fame had diminished considerably since then due to a number of factors. His accent became a liability with the introduction of sound. The restrictive (and racist) Hays Code explicitly banned miscegenation, limiting his viability as a romantic lead. And as the country became gripped in anti-Japanese fervor in the years leading up to World War II, Hayakawa increasingly found work abroad. He was filming in France when the Germans occupied the country, trapping him there for the duration of the war. He wouldn’t appear in another Hollywood film until Tokyo Joe in 1949. Swiss Family Robinson would be one of only a handful of film and TV appearances by Hayakawa after the late-career high point of Bridge On The River Kwai.

The depiction of the pirates is really too abstract to be considered offensive. They represent an ill-defined “other”, clearly not Anglo-European but otherwise difficult to pin down. The presence of Hayakawa and the design of their ship marks them as more-or-less Asian but that’s about as specific as it gets. Compared to some of the other Asian stereotypes and caricatures Disney has unfortunately indulged in, the depiction of the pirates is practically enlightened.

Fritz, Ernst and Roberta manage to lose the pirates and make their way back to the treehouse just in time for a Christmas polka party. Concerned that the pirates might come looking for Bertie, Father decides to fortify his stronghold. The entire family gets in on the act, building coconut grenades and log rolls. Francis even manages to capture his tiger in a pit. When the pirates do show up (interrupting a spirited animal race), the Robinsons swing into action, transforming into the most skilled primitive warriors this side of the Ewoks. They’re able to hold the pirates at bay long enough for Bertie’s grandfather to show up and save the day. Despite the rescue, most of the family decides to stick around, as does Bertie. Only Ernst sails back to civilization to further his education.

While there’s nothing about Swiss Family Robinson that strikes me as actively bad, it also doesn’t seem special enough to have become a pop culture touchstone. The cast is agreeable enough. Mills and McGuire make for a warm, believable couple. MacArthur gives his best, most relaxed Disney performance and he’s a good foil for Tommy Kirk. Kevin Corcoran, who had been a bit more restrained lately in movies like Toby Tyler, is unfortunately back to his irritating old hyperactive ways, running around the island on a constant sugar high.

But for an adventure movie, there are only a handful of scenes that generate real excitement. The opening storm is kind of cool. Fritz and Ernst run into some trouble while they’re outrunning the pirates. But most of the action here ranges from silly to goofy. The finale with the pirates is a nonstop barrage of slapstick mayhem with all the lasting consequences of a Road Runner cartoon. And then there’s that whole animal race sequence, in which poor Tommy Kirk learns that it’s impossible to keep your dignity while riding an ostrich.

Swiss Family Robinson theatrical re-release poster

But as I said, maybe you had to be there. Swiss Family Robinson struck a chord as an ideal family adventure (and maybe the perfect fantasy of colonialism), raking in over $8 million in its initial release. In 1962, the Swiss Family Treehouse attraction opened in Disneyland, allowing visitors to climb into a replica of the Robinsons’ home. Although the original ride was refurbished into Tarzan’s Treehouse in 1999, you can still visit Swiss Family Treehouses in Orlando’s Magic Kingdom, Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland.

The copycats and ripoffs started arriving fairly quickly. In 1962, Gold Key Comics (who had inherited the Disney license from its predecessor, Dell Comics) began publishing Space Family Robinson. A few years later, Irwin Allen’s very similar Lost In Space premiered on CBS. (Gold Key was already publishing another Irwin Allen comic, so rather than risk antagonizing him with a lawsuit, they decided to just add Lost In Space to their title.) 1975 brought us The Adventures Of The Wilderness Family, about another family named Robinson leaving on their own in the wild. That movie spawned its own franchise, culminating in Mountain Family Robinson in 1979.

There have been several subsequent TV adaptations of Wyss’ book, both live-action and animated. In 1987, Disney Television produced Beverly Hills Family Robinson starring Dyan Cannon, Martin Mull and a young Sarah Michelle Gellar. That appears to be the studio’s most recent attempt at a reboot but they certainly haven’t stopped trying. Over the years, everyone from Lindsay Lohan to Bill Paxton to Will Smith and the entire Smith family have been rumored to be involved in a new version. Back in 2014, Steve Carell was reportedly attached to Brooklyn Family Robinson. It’s been nearly seven years since that news broke, so odds are the project is dead in the water.

Rest assured that sooner or later, Disney will have another go at this property. Swiss Family Robinson is too iconic to leave dormant for long. And honestly, I don’t have a problem with that. Walt’s version is fine for what it was but it isn’t an untouchable classic. Sure, it would be very easy to make an updated version that’s a lot worse. But the template is so universal and basic that all the elements are in place to make it even better. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of the Robinsons.

VERDICT: I don’t have a lot of enthusiasm for this one but it isn’t terrible, so I guess it’s a very mild Disney Plus.

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