Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Babes in Toyland (1961)

Walt Disney's slick, overproduced adaptation of the Victor Herbert operetta is a charmless and lifeless affair, devoid of any sense of fun despite the obvious resources poured in to its production, directed with all the sincerity of a network TV commercial. Despite his superficial attempts to re-create the magic of the classic 1934 Hal Roach production with Laurel and Hardy, Disney's version falls far short. Its drawn out, loud musical numbers (featuring unnecessary new and updated material in addition to the Herbert originals), candy-colored, garish sets and costumes, and overblown special effects are merely a distraction from the absence of genuine charm and heart that made the earlier version such a favorite.

That Disney obviously modeled his production on the Roach version can be seen most glaringly in his Laurel and Hardy substitutes played by Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon, who pale in comparison with the real thing. Calvin does at least a serviceable job as the corpulent, gentlemanly Hardy stand-in, while Sheldon, ostensibly meant to resemble Laurel, rather brings to mind a weird cross between Harry Langdon and Harpo Marx in his mute, zany characterization. To be fair, they try their best with the material they are given, but it is, of course, an impossible and utterly pointless task to try and re-create the chemistry or comedy genius of Laurel and Hardy.

Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands, as the romantic leads, lack any of the innocent charm of Charlotte Henry and Felix Knight. Indeed, Sands' wooden performance as Tom makes Knight's performance in the original seem positively dynamic in comparison! The only real standout in the cast is the wonderful Ray Bolger as Barnaby, but even he lacks the real sense of menace and over-the-top villainy so superbly acted by Henry Brandon in the original. Bolger is clearly having a lot of fun with the role, and demonstrates his fine singing and dancing skills, but he is such a likable, delightful performer that he just can't seem to muster up the threatening tone that the role requires in order to be really effective. Ed Wynn as the bumbling, bombastic Toymaker is amusing enough doing his usual comic shtick, and at least adds a bit of fun to the proceedings with his presence.

The finale, with the parade of the wooden soldiers, has none of the dramatic urgency of the corresponding sequence in the Hal Roach version, and by the time it finally occurs, feels like just one more overdone special effects set piece (even lacking the quaint charm of Roy Seawright's stop-motion effects in the original). Compared to Hal Roach's timeless classic, which continues to delight new audiences 80 years after its release, the Disney version is instantly dated camp, with its concessions to contemporary fashion.

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