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We all have our good years and our bad years that we can recall. For me, 2013 was not a very good year. To make a long story short, everything from February onward culminated in a deep depression that lasted through most of the fall. What helped me out of it? Well, Team Starkid released what is to date their best show, Twisted, for starters. But that same Thanksgiving weekend Twisted premiered online, I rediscovered a piece of my childhood almost untouched by time. A movie that, despite its age and subject, wore down the walls of cynicism, made me forget the troubles of the outside world for 75 minutes, and had me smiling genuinely for the first time in months.
That movie is what I’ll be reviewing today.
Babes in Toyland began life as an operetta/pantomime by Victor Herbert in 1903, and you’ll never find a straight adaptation or production of the original libretto put on today. Why?
There’s gruesome murders, convoluted schemes, love octagons, too many characters to keep track of, needlessly dark subplots, and I’m not even touching the random fantasy elements thrown in. If you want some idea of what the story is supposed to be, then by all means read Jay Davis’ Babes in Toyland retrospective (coincidentally written in 2013). Despite this, the show was tremendously popular and led to many theatrical reimaginings of magical family-friendly stories like The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. In the former’s case, it was those stage adaptations that paved the way for the classic 1939 movie. But because Babes in Toyland was first and foremost a musical, a film adaptation had to wait until silent pictures became talkies. And when it did come to the big screen, it took a turn that few expected.
Enter Hal Roach, famed producer of comedy vehicles for stars of the 20s and 30s such as Will Rogers, Thelma Todd, the Little Rascals, and of course, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Once movie rights for Babes in Toyland were made available, Roach saw the comic potential for Laurel and Hardy and snagged ’em. His initial treatment didn’t impress Stan Laurel much, though. Few know that Laurel took his craft very seriously and was prone to rewriting scripts to milk as many laughs from it as possible. While this might sound like the workings of a control freak prima donna, he actually knew what he was doing. This Babes in Toyland, later re-titled March of the Wooden Soldiers to differentiate it from the others, is full of entertaining comic setpieces, lines, and characters, and has a tight plot that ties them all together. It is very much Stan Laurel’s movie more than it is Hal Roach’s.
And in hindsight, we have him to thank for the grand tradition of rewriting Babes in Toyland so it’s almost nothing like the operetta and no two versions are the same. That’s something I’m also grateful for.
But perhaps the greatest contribution Laurel might have made to March of the Wooden Soldiers is how naturally he and Hardy step into the role of main character. See, the leads in all the other takes on Babes in Toyland are love interests usually named Tom and Mary, and they are so mind-numbingly boring. If Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry hooked up with Kevin Costner and Robert Pattinson, their non-existent chemistry wouldn’t be half as dull as the parade of Toms and Marys doing nothing but pining for each other. They take time away from the characters who have real personalities and make those other Babes in Toyland far less interesting or fun to watch.
March of the Wooden Soldiers, on the other hand, does something radical when it comes to naming its leads – it takes the funny side cast we want to see more of and makes them the focus while putting the traditional romantic protagonists in the background. Normally handing over the spotlight to the comic relief characters is a bad idea (COUGHMINIONSCOUGH). But when those side characters-turned-leads are played by the most iconic comedic duo of all time, well, let’s just say we’re in good hands.