Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the delightfully weird holiday essential, ‘Babes In Toyland.’
Merry December! This month’s Essentials are going to lean towards the holiday season in different ways with one or two actual Christmas movies and others that are simply Christmas adjacent. We’re kicking things off with a childhood favorite of mine that continues to entertain me as an adult for the very same reasons I loved it as a kid. Maybe that’s revealing a bit too much about myself, but it’s a funny, exciting, and inventive musical that also happens to be a surreal nightmare of sorts. Watch it with the kids!
1934’s Babes in Toyland isn’t even really a Christmas movie, but don’t tell the network programmers that. For some reason the film has long been a staple of the holidays with stations airing it every year around this time despite only a minimal Christmas mention within. Santa appears briefly, but he’s nothing more than another background figure in a land populated by storybook characters, pignapping, creepy furries, and cave-dwelling bogeymen.
The story begins with Old Mother Hubbard, her daughter Little Bo Peep, and the overdue mortgage payment owed to their landlord, Silas Barnaby. The sleazy, hunched-over old man – based on the nursery rhyme “There Was a Crooked Man” – is willing to cut the old lady a break in exchange for Peep’s hand in marriage despite her being an atrocious shepherdess, but the women wisely know better than to agree to that deal. He drops the hammer and threatens to evict them out of the shoe, and it’s here where Hubbard’s two favorite tenants enter the picture.
Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee (Laurel and Hardy) try to get the money from their boss, but when that fails they attempt an elaborate ruse to infiltrate Barnaby’s house and steal the mortgage. An entertaining bit of idiocy ruins the plan – classic Stan Laurel – and Barnaby sees the pair tossed into the stockade and dunked in the pond. With no real solution in sight, Peep agrees to marry Barnaby in exchange for their freedom and ownership of the mortgage, but the boys devise a new scheme and trick the old bastard into marrying Stannie instead.
The crooked man loses his shit.
He frames Peep’s boyfriend, Tom Tom, for murder by kidnapping one of the Three (dead-eyed) Little Pigs and planting fresh sausage in Tom Tom’s home. The king banishes the young man to Bogeyland – a cavernous hellscape beyond Toytown’s gates that’s home to the “half man, half animal” bogeymen – but when Barnaby’s trick is discovered all hell breaks loose.
It should be noted that his plan is foiled when Dee and Dum eat the sausage they thought was their neighbor.
Barnaby heads into Bogeyland followed by Peep and the boys, and after the trio rescues Tom Tom they’re chased back to town by the old man and his swarm of bogeymen. The beasts attack and begin abducting children, the town fights back with sharp objects, small explosives, and ultimately an army of human-sized, marching wooden soldiers – giving rise to the film’s alternate title, March of the Wooden Soldiers.
The film’s laughs come exclusively from the legendary comedic duo which means we get a mix of verbal and physical gags from the pair. Hardy continually gives his patented “can you believe this guy” looks into the camera, and they share some fast-moving, verbal sparring sessions that earn smiles and laughs.
I’m as entertained now as I was as a kid, and that’s no small feat. I was an easy mark as a child, but I’ve become a far more cynical adult.
Part of that is due to the visuals and laughs, but there’s a real darkness here that feels removed from typical kiddie fare. Some of it is blatant with the bogeymen rampaging through town and literally smashing their way into homes to snatch children from their beds, and Barnaby feels like an early incarnation of the creepy as fudge Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The really twisted stuff though comes in small bursts including a small, oddly proportioned Mickey Mouse (played by a monkey in a suit), the pigs crying when their sibling is turned into meat, darts being launched into the bogeymen’s flesh, and more. One wooden soldier loses his head and keeps on fighting, and I can’t even begin to explain the ghost dwarves that appear in the caves to watch Peep and Tom Tom sleep.
Babes in Toyland, whether colorized or watched in black & white, remains a terrifically entertaining watch that’s equal parts fun and unsettling. And isn’t that what the holidays are all about?
“Let’s drop a rock on him then we’ll make him dead when he’s alive.”
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