Rankin/Bass’ Attempt At Mixing Live Action With Animation: ‘The Daydreamer’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

For many, watching Rankin/Bass animated specials around the holidays is an annual tradition. Around Christmastime especially, you can usually catch Rudolph or Frosty on TV. The Daydreamer doesn’t have a holiday connection. It isn’t pure animation either. According to Rankin/Bass historian and author Rick Goldschmidt, who provides the commentary with film historian Lee Gambin, it was executive producer Joseph E. Levine who wanted Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass to create a film on the lines of Mary Poppins.

Mixing live action with stop motion “Animagic,” The Daydreamer is based on the stories by Hans Christian Anderson and follows Chris (Paul O’Keefe) as he tries to find the Garden of Paradise. Along the way, he meets different characters from Anderson’s stories, including the Little Mermaid (Hayley Mills), the tailors from The Emperor’s New Clothes (Victor Borge and Terry-Thomas), the Ugly Duckling, and Thumbelina (Patty Duke).

Sometimes films don’t get the credit they deserve. Other times they’re not as well known for a reason. There are definitely reasons The Daydreamer might not be as remembered today. Not all of them are bad, but some – like making the one Asian character voiced by Sessue Hayakawa the villain – feel offensive.

In terms of the voice cast, there are enough big names to warrant attention and aside from the Sandman (Cyril Richard), the animation is on par with anything else Rankin/Bass has done — especially the underwater sequences. If the water looks like cellophane that’s because it is according to Goldschmidt, and there’s a lot of water in this movie. One of the best character designs is for the Sea Witch (Tallulah Bankhead), which, if you’re more familiar with the Disney version, is the Ursula character. Instead of octopus vibes she’s more of a mermaid Medusa, with eels instead of snakes in her seaweed hair. She’s made legitimately scary, too, by the harrowing time the Little Mermaid has looking for her.

The transitions from animation to live action in Daydreamer feel prescient for what MGM Animation would do four years later with The Phantom Tollbooth and a lot of the characters resemble other Rankin/Bass characters (like the giant frog, whose mannerisms mirror Bumble’s in Rudolph).

Goldschmidt and Gambin both praise Maury Laws and Bass’ songs, and “Luck to Sell” is a catchy number, but next to the songs Danny Kaye sings in the biopic, Hans Christian Anderson (1955), there’s no comparison. The plot of Hans Christian Anderson, however, can be on the bland side and that’s where The Daydreamer excels. Does the film make some dark and unusual choices? Absolutely. Chris couldn’t be a more atypical lead. His lack of character growth is astounding and at the same time it’s not like the film doesn’t realize he’s in the wrong. It’s just at the moment where you’d expect him to have to prove he’s changed he’s taken at his word.

If it weren’t for the suggestion of racism with the mole character, there’d be no reason to think twice about recommending Daydreamer, but that scene exists and it’s hard to shake.

The Daydreamer is available on Blu-Ray and DVD starting May 18th from Kino Lorber and Scorpion Releasing.

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