...shining light on the media, one review at a time
Disney's famous "vault" may just be a promotional ploy, but there's no false advertising in the seemingly endless store of treasures the company keeps digging out from somewhere in the past and making available to modern families. Some of the classics recently released on video even lifelong Disney fans won't have heard of, but many of them offer just as much family-friendly appeal as their better-known counterparts.
Toby Tyler is one such obscure film that deserves more attention. Packed with the imaginative fun that made Disney a fixture in American homes, Toby Tyler is an uplifting tale that also offers more than one positive lesson for viewers to learn while they’re being entertained.
Though he lives in a bygone era that is easy to idealize, Toby Tyler’s home life doesn’t exactly fit the idyllic stereotype. Poor and hardworking, Toby does the best he can to pull his weight on his uncle’s farm. Uncle Daniel and Aunt Olive took Toby in when he was orphaned, and the aging couple depends heavily on Toby’s labor to help run the farm. But Toby is still just a young boy, and, though he loves the animals he cares for, he has the typical longings to see new sights, as any youth would.
[SPOILER WARNING] When a circus comes to town, Toby’s curiosity is heightened, and he goes to check it out, not telling his uncle. Toby can’t actually get inside the big tent to see the circus performers, since he has no money, but he does manage to meet a few of the lively characters traveling with the troop. One of those is a concessions worker, who offers Toby a job selling peanuts and traveling with the circus.
[SPOILER WARNING] Out of loyalty to his family, Toby initially refuses the offer, knowing his uncle and aunt need him at home. When he returns to the farm, however, Toby is met by a wrathful uncle who lets loose on Toby, essentially telling him that he’s a burden and not loved by the only family he has. His young heart crushed, Toby flees from home and joins the circus with the intention of earning money that will allow him to buy his way back into his guardians’ affections. With that aim as his constant focus, Toby embarks on the adventure of a lifetime.
In true Disney fashion, this story finds success by tapping into universally appealing concepts and themes. Most kids and many adults are fascinated by the circus, and this film offers a chance to see what it would really be like to join such a traveling show. Despite Disney’s tendency to gloss over some grittier realities of life, Toby Tyler is surprisingly authentic in its depiction of circus life. As Toby immediately learns, putting on a circus is not all glamour and fun, nor are all circus people kind and friendly.
Toby’s reaction to these challenges, however, offers some of the most positive messages in the film and provides a rare case for parents to encourage their kids to emulate a movie’s hero. In this coming-of-age experience, Toby encounters many obstacles, most of which come from the wrong behavior of people he meets. Toby starts off as rather naïve, but he’s a smart kid who quickly learns how to do what he can to protect his interests from those around him who are trying to take advantage of his innocence.
Nevertheless, Toby maintains a positive attitude even with people who cheat or look down on him, and treats everyone around him with kindness. Most remarkably of all, Toby never stoops to returning evil for evil, but always takes the high road and remains dutifully responsible—true to his word with people who don’t keep theirs.
Toby isn’t perfect, but his mistakes are further opportunities for good, as he is always remorseful and avoids making the same error again. He learns, for example, that lying (even of the “white lie” variety) is always harmful. As with several of the positive character traits Toby exemplifies, he’s encouraged and guided through this lesson by his adult friend and mentor, Ben Cotter. Because of his loving nature, however, Toby ultimately teaches Ben and the other circus members more than they teach him. One of the most powerful and memorable of these lessons is Toby’s eager willingness to forgive, no matter how great the wrong.
Packed as it is with elements that parents want their kids to learn, this “medicine” is well-coated with sugar that takes the form of old-school Disney charm. A Disney favorite, Kevin Corcoran leads a solid cast by setting a genuine tone as the title character. Corcoran was essentially typecast in his many Disney roles, but it’s easy to see why. He seems to quite naturally embody the boyish blend of innocence, unconscious troublemaking, and childlike curiosity that his characters usually require. That said, Corcoran’s turn as Toby is one of the actor’s best performances.
Disney’s attention to detail supports the authenticity of the cast by supplying them with accurate costumes and bringing the circus world to life with period set design. As with most of these Disney family classics, the cinematography is utilitarian, rather than artistic—more of a theatre than cinematic bent. Yet this style poses an arguable advantage over the more trendy techniques of our day, as it ensures that the camera never gets in the way of telling the story.
Regardless, the opportunity Toby Tyler presents for pure, family fun far outweighs any inadequacy in filming technique. The strength here is the story. One won’t find tremendously nuanced characters in Toby Tyler, nor complex themes, but there is still much of value to be found in this film’s simplicity.
Quaint? Yes. Naïve? Surprisingly, no. For in the way Toby handles the troubles of life, this movie proves that a “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” approach is precisely what we all need to practice (Matthew 10:16, NKJV).
Check out these similar titles:
Pollyanna (Disney, 1960)
Swiss Family Robinson (Disney, 1960)
Dumbo (Disney, 1941)