Based on Victor Herbert's operetta, Mary (Annette Funicello) and Tom the Piper's son (Tommy Sands), are about to be married in a land where nursery rhyme characters live, however, the evil greedy miser Barnaby (Ray Bolger) wants to marry her, and sends his two henchman to drop Tom in the ocean, leaving Mary to have to marry Baranby to help her with her fiances since she can't do it herself (Typical sexism of the time, no doubt). However, the crooks sell Tom to a bunch of Gypsies (Seriously?) to make some extra money (Which, I'm sure won't backfire). Baranby hires a bunch of Gypsies to celebrate his engagement to marry Mary, but oops, they are the same Gypsies that Tom was sold to, which the two get back together. If you think I'm giving the whole plot away, my friends, this is only the first 50 or so minutes, the film hasn't even reached an hour. Instead of giving an easy straight forward plot that could probably fill an entire movie, we get more plots! The crooks steal the sheep that belong to Mary to help her pay her fiances (Which, I'm not sure how. The film never explains that important piece of info), and the kids who live with Mary chase the sheep in a forbidden dark forest full of evil talking trees. Tom and Mary go after the kids, and the couple and the kids find themselves in a castle that makes Toys run by a Toy Maker (Ed Wynn) and his nerdy assistant (Tommy Kirk). However, Baranby and his two crooks follow the group to the castle, steals an invention that can make things small, and uses it for his own evil deeds. However, Tom plans to stop Baranby by using Toys that come to life. Man is this plot strange and all over the map. It's not horrible, I've seen worse, but man is it all over the place!
Our two romantic leads played by Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands, are really boring. I'm not kidding, they're seriously boring! First off, instead of seeing the two develop their relationship; the film starts off on the day before their wedding. I mean, how did they meet; what do those two have in common; it's never explained, they're just a cutesy romantic couple with no development at all. It wouldn't be that bad if our leads were charming and had chemistry, but they sadly don't. Annette Funicello who is usually charming, is just bland in this film. All she does is sing, cry, fall in love with her fiance, and look confused, that's it; there's no character to her at all! She doesn't really even do that much, all she does that's productive in the film, is make the villain small in the climax, but instead of squishing him, or picking him up, she just watches her fiance fight him and look worried as if there's nothing she can do. So yeeeeah, Annettes character sucks. Tommy Sands as Tom, aside from his scene when he dresses up as a Gypsy fortune teller, he's just as boring. He starts out charming and decent, but after the scene I just mentioned, he becomes boring and forgettable. One of the many reasons why I don't buy the love between the two is not just because they lack chemistry, and that it looks painfully corny, but he basically just loves her because of her looks; and the fact that they had a past together, you expect them to at least have some interesting back story, or connection. If that's not bad enough, he actually sings about comparing her to a toy doll, which is not only stupid as heck, but man does the film the show the little chemistry that the actors have to work with.
Now, for the villains. First, we have Ray Bolger as the villain Baranby, and when I heard that the guy who played the Scarecrow in "The Wizard Of Oz" was going to be the villain, I was hyped. When I saw his performance, I was sadly bored. I can tell the actor is having a fun time playing this role; he does look intimidating in a few scenes; and his musical numbers are really not bad at all. However, there's still such a huge amount of blandness to his character, that there's really not enough for Bolger to work with. He's just the cliche stereotypical villain with a top hat, dark cape, twisty mustache, and classy and nasty over the top personality, which I was hoping would be entertaining and fun, but for the majority, it isn't. Well, at least he's not as boring as the two romantic leads. His two henchmen played by Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon are actually a lot more entertaining than Bolger. Calvin is the brains and Sheldon is the comical mime assistant, and while they too are cliche type of villains (The smart Fox, and silent Cat from Disney's "Pinocchio", anyone), they at least give a really fun and entertaining performance from beginning to end, especially from Sheldon's mime performance. In most adaptations I've seen of "Babes In Toyland", Baranby has evil minions in a forbidden part of Toyland that help him wreck havoc on Toyland in the climax, and I assumed his minions in this film were in "The Forrest Of No Return". However, he doesn't in this version, and the only scary things we see in the forest are the scary trees, which turn out to not be evil at all. Man was that a downer!
The films supporting characters, aside from the extremely bland kids that Tom and Mary have to find, are fun and memorable! First, you have Mother Goose, with her talking puppet Goose, Sylvester, who are a really great team! Mother Goose is all nice and humble, while Sylvester is a wise cracking Goose, who I always get a laugh from. Ed Wynn and Tommy Kirk also make a great team as well. While, Tommy Kirk is hysterical as this nerdy scientist that makes inventions that fail; Ed Wynn steals the spotlight from him. He's dumb, he's nice, he's bossy, he's funny; Ed Wynn just really gives a great performance, making it one of his best in my opinion. Best scene, with Kirk and Ed Wynn together is when Kirk invents an automatic toy making machine that starts out as a success, but Ed Wynn foolishly messes it up. The rest of the supporting characters are just extras that dance, do stunts, or make a cameo appearance as a nursery rhyme character. It's really a shame, because I did enjoy all of the supporting characters than I do the main characters.
Now for the film's musical numbers, which by the way, the film only takes at least a 3 minute break in between songs, except for the Toy Making Machine sequence, and the climax, so if you don't like musical that hardly take a break from singing, then you're going to hate this film! Most of the songs sung by our romantic leads are very forgettable. Songs like "Just A Whisper Away" and "Go To Sleep" are generic and forgettable numbers, and the song "Go To Sleep" was my favorite in the Laurel and Hardy "Babes In Toyland" film. Annette's song "I Can't Do The Sum" is visually nice and surreal, but the song about a girl not knowing how to do math would be considered sexist around many people, and yeah, I can definitely see why people would be offended by it. For me personally, I think the song "Just A Toy" is more offensive since (As I said earlier) Tom sings about how much she is a toy to him than a person. It's trying to be romantic, but man does that backfire big time! Other songs that I find forgettable and uninteresting is the "Workshop Song" sung by the kids and the Toymaker; and "Never Mind, Bo-Peep" sung by the chorus, which isn't a bad rendition of the song, but it's not as memorable and epic compared to the Laurel and Hardy film. Also the song "Toyland" which is a song I love in most adaptations of this operetta, is done well here, but feels very shoehorned into the movie, and plays as more of a "We're Off To See The Wizard, The Wonderful Wizard Of OZ" knock off, as our characters merely skip down the road to "Toyland". In fact, the film itself does look more like an MGM Musical flick, than a Disney flick, but I'll discuss that later! The rest of the songs are really, really good! The opening song with all the characters dancing around literally pulled me into the film and got me invested in all the fun and dancing that was going on. "The Forrest Of No Return" is a creepy and foreboding number with those scary singing trees. The Gypsy song "Floretta" with all the dancing Gypsies, and Tommy Sands disguised as a Gypsy is fun and great! The villain songs are really great as well. Baranby's song "Castle Of Spain" as he tries to have Mary live with him is a flawless performance by Bolger; the henchman song "Slowly, He Sank To The Bottom of the Sea" as they tell Mary the bad news is a lot of fun; but the best villain song that's really memorable and catchy is the song "We Won't Be Happy Till We Get It" sung by all three villains! Of course, the best piece of music in the whole film is the "March Of The Toys" score, which is my favorite part in every adaptations I've seen of this operetta, and Disney's take on that famous piece of music is really incredible!
Being one of Disney's early attempts at making a fantasy musical before they would find their niche when they made "Mary Poppins", the film does look more like an MGM musical, than a Disney musical, and in many ways, it is. In fact, the look and feel of the movie is very Wizard Of OZ-ish. You have Ray Bolger as one of the leads; you have scary trees, like the trees in OZ; the designs and sets look as colorful and fantasy like as the magical land of OZ; how our characters look, gaze and walk to Toyland is very similar to when Dorothy and her friends walk to the Emerald City; and the last big film adaptation to this operetta was previously done by MGM, which is indeed the Laurel and Hardy version. The film in many respects does have its own original look as well, but I'm sorry, I just couldn't help but feel that Disney may have taken a few ideas and inspiration from "The Wizard Of OZ"; especially the fact, that Disney was originally going to make a musical live action film based on the OZ books, starring "The Mousekeeters". Aside from this film looking more MGM-ish, than Disney-ish, I still found plenty of things to appreciate and enjoy from it. While it's obvious that we're looking at a set than a fictional world, I still admire how huge it is. In fact, the film starts out with a curtain, and the film ends with a closed curtain, and judging by the sets and puppets, I have a feeling the film was meant to be a musical stage based film. However, there are scenes that try to make you think that you're in a different world, so the film's style does feel as big of a mess as the plot. Getting back to the sets, I just admire how creative, colorful, dark and twisted, and gigantic it looks, it really does look amazing! Even the costumes are just as bright and colorful as the sets. As for the effects, they're actually pretty creative as well. The puppets, despite looking more like puppets than something real and lifelike, still have a fun and creative charm to them; the cartoony effects are fun; the scenes when our characters are small is really cool to look at; and the effects and stop-motion for the Toys coming to life are incredible! As for the climax, despite its flaw with Mary not stepping in to stop a small Baranby, it's still a an awesome climax from beginning to end!
While this film is one of the better adaptations of this musical, it's still an unbalanced mess of a film with things both really good and really bad. However, the good stuff is really good; it has enough things to keep you entertained and invested into the film; and you can tell that the cast not only had a fun time making this film, but you feel plenty of effort behind it as well. Still, I can't say it's a good movie or one of Disney's best, because there are indeed many things that put the film down. However, I personally am glad I saw it, and if you are interested or curious about seeing this film, I say give it a watch.
By the way, what happened to the sheep?