Victor Herbert’s operetta Babes in Toyland brought classic Mother Goose characters together through story and song.
The opera had already been brought to the silver screen once in 1934 (Laurel and Hardy starred), but Walt Disney felt the time was right for a new Technicolor version starring Ray Bolger, pop star Tommy Sands and ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello.
Mary Contrary (Funicello) and Tom Piper (Sands) are engaged to be married, but wicked Barnaby (Ray Bolger) wants Mary as his own.
To achieve his nefarious purposes, Barnaby hires bumbling henchmen Gonzorgo (Henry Calvin) and Roderigo (Gene Sheldon) to drown Tom – but the two decide they could turn a higher profit by selling Tom to gypsies instead.
Tommy, disguised as an old woman, returns to save Mary, but the two must first rescue Mary’s younger siblings from the Forest of No Return. The journey carries everyone to Toyland for a climactic battle involving shrink rays, toy soldiers and Victor Herbert’s rollicking music.
The timeless story was a Christmas treat when Disney released it in December 1961, and it has remained a family favourite ever since.
The film is filled to the brim with gimmicks, ranging from animated stars bursting out of Tom’s head when he is bopped with a sledgehammer by the two henchmen, to talking and dancing trees in the Forest of No Return and multiple colour-tinted Mary’s emerging from a mirror and singing together.
There’s also an endless procession of songs and a large cast performing in the most colourful settings ever devised for a live-action Disney film.
An NBC TV miniseries remake (starring Drew Barrymore, Eileen Brennan, ‘Pat’ Morita and then-unknown Keanu Reeves) debuted in 1986, followed by an animated version in 1997.