Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Rare Disney Delight: Toby Tyler, the Movie, Revisited

I remember loving this 1960 film when it came out so many years ago, even though virtually every detail about it had vanished from my memory.

When you revisit a favorite movie, a TV show, well anything that wowed you long ago, you risk a let down.

Disney did not let me down. Remarkably, this "circus movie," based upon the 1880 children's book by James Otis Kaler, bears a most affecting story, giving us characters of depth rather than the usual cliches -- big top going bankrupt, con men on the tear, flyers recklessly competing for the center ring, you know the hooks.

Toby, played to simple perfection by Kevin Corcoran, is an orphan living with his sweet aunt and cruel heartless uncle. He runs away to join the circus, making bests friends with a charming and sly chimp, Mr. Stubbs, and a gruff trouper, Ben (Henry Calvin, below), whose heart turns from stone to cotton candy. All of the pieces fall perfectly into place.

This little cinematic gem has a story that grows on you, and a wonderful ending bringing all parties happily back together. It warms your heart, leaving you grateful for the film's sunny humanity.

Circus? The few acts seem secondary to the story. What I liked the most were the romantic scenes of the big wagons slowly moving by night over idyllic country roads.

Toby Tyler just might be the best circus movie ever made, that is, if character and plot are what you value the most. Which is a way of saying, sorry, it may not be a "circus" movie at all. This time, I think it will stay in my memory.



David Carlyon said...

But, David, doesn't the movie have even bigger--and hoarier--circus cliches? That's not surprising, considering that the source, the Toby Tyler books by James Otis Kaler (not "Kale"), writing as Jame Otis, propelled those cliches in the late 19C. The trainer bullying a child. The sentimentalized view of children. The anthropomorphic notion of animals with human thoughts, motivations (you called it "sly"), etc.

Disney took those cliches and made them even sweeter. As for the character and plot that you celebrate, maybe take a third look. The former mostly fit conventional, two-dimensional notions and the latter is as loose as other kids movies of that era, like Absent-Minded Professor or Shaggy Dog. I enjoyed/enjoy those movies but I wouldn't hold them up as "the best" of anything, other than of that kind of kid movie. (On the website, the word for verification of my comment is "trype." I refrain from taking an easy shot at your critique.)

Showbiz David said...

so maybe it got me in a weak moment. i just watched hairspray the musical. when it came out i loved it. now, it's only ok.
mostly with tyler, it was so atypical for a circus movie, and i did connect with the kid and his relationships with the chimp and the roustabout. the story got to me in a way every other circus movie i've seen, save for trapeze, never did.

Showbiz David said...

p.s. scientists today are considering that animals have feelings and maybe even thoughts. PBS, Nova I think, did a great show last week on Darwin and more we've learned about genetics, etc. Genes: monkeys have only have one percent less genes than humans! THAT is science. As for kids getting bullied by circus types, this form of breaking in a kid way back thenhas been well documented.

David Carlyon said...

Dear Showbiz David (may I call you Showbiz?),

Yes, some animals have thoughts and emotions. In addition to learning about it from reading, I experienced it as a pet owner and as a circus clown. However I was referring to anthropomorphism, laying our human thoughts and emotions on animals. There, science gives way to sentimentality.

And, yes, children have been bullied in the history of circus. BUT that image became a cliche in the mid-19th century, used as an anti-circus weapon. And though it has stuck around, as negative attacks often do, it is no more true about circus apprentices than apprentices in any other business in human history, or than children in some families. Read Frank Rich's GHOSTLIGHT, for an upper-class, privileged version of abuse.

One other thing: I don't mean to denigrate your feelings. If you enjoyed the movie, that's great. Enjoyment is enjoyable. And the fact that it uses cliches is almost beside the point: There's barely a movie that doesn't rely on some stereotypical thoughts, or it couldn't reach an audience. I was only trying to point out that while this movie skips some circus cliches, it drips with bigger ones.

Showbiz David said...

David, you may call me whatever you wish.

Your points well made and interesting. Thanks. I'm looking forward to the upcoming movie, Water for Elephants, to see what old or new or recycled or deconstructed cliches it may push.

And to watching Toby in another year or two, to see how it affects me then. I never know!