Monday, July 19, 2010

Christmas in July: Babes in Toyland (1961)

Like the 1934 Laurel & Hardy version, Disney's 1961 remake of Babes in Toyland has become a beloved Christmas classic despite having almost nothing to do with Christmas. Its connection to the holiday season is a little stronger than its predecessor's, but it's still mostly interested in being a surreal and sometimes creepy fairy tale about a nasty old guy who wants to marry a fresh-faced young nursery-rhyme character. Here that young character is Mary Quite Contrary (Mouseketeer Annette Funicello), rather than Little Bo Peep as in the original (Bo Peep is still here, as a little girl and Mary's sister), but the old guy is still Silas Barnaby, and still oddly uses the threat of foreclosure as his primary motivator to snare his bride.

Most of the rest of the plot is different, and the characters Laurel & Hardy played in the original aren't even in this version, although Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon obviously channel the classic comedy duo in their portrayal of Barnaby's clueless henchmen. Even with all the changes, what remains the same is the complete insane nonsense of the story, which careens from one plot point to another seemingly at random. The characters wander into the Forest of No Return, and then are seen at the end of the movie having returned from there with no trouble! They risk everything to find Little Bo Peep's sheep, and then never mention them again! They are enlisted by the Toymaker to work overtime to get toys ready for Christmas (note tenuous Christmas connection), destroy the toys in battle and then never make more! If you care even slightly about the plot, you will get a serious headache.

Even if you ignore the plot, though, there is some seriously weird shit going on. After Mary, her fiancee Tom Piper and her young siblings volunteer to help the Toymaker with his labors, they sing a nice paean to child labor. Tom also sings a song to Mary about how she's just like a doll for him to keep as his wife. Mary sings a number about her inability to do math as a psychedelic chorus of Annette Funicellos dances around her. Mother Goose carries around a flamboyantly gay goose named Sylvester. All the fresh-faced Disney sunniness just makes it even odder. But the songs are catchy, Funicello is charming and very pretty, and the colors on the sets and costumes are vibrant. It's fun to watch, as long as you don't stop for even a second to wonder what the heck is going on.

The True Meaning of Christmas: It's all about mass production.

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