Arthur Rankin, Jr., and Jules Bass brought their stop-motion “Animagic” puppetry to the big screen for the first time in 1965. Produced at the same time as their more widely-known Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer television special, Willy McBean and His Magic Machine was a time-jumping romp through history, guided by a mad scientist, a young boy and a very clever monkey.
In a dark castle on a stormy night, Professor Rasputin Von Rotten develops a machine that will allow him to travel through time and remake history in his honor. Overhearing this, a monkey named Pablo escapes from the Professor’s lab, steals the machine’s design and runs away, ending up in the bedroom of a young boy named Willy McBean. Willy isn’t much of a history buff, but he knows it isn’t a good idea to mess with the space-time continuum. Working with Pablo, Willy makes a duplicate machine and travels back to foil Von Rotten.
The first stop is 1883, where the Professor is hoping to beat Buffalo Bill in an Old West showdown, using a secret gun hidden in his hat. Disguising himself as Willy the Kid, Willy distracts Von Rotten while Pablo switches Von Rotten’s and Willy’s hats. The showdown still goes down, but with the help of Sitting Bull, Von Rotten is temporarily defeated. The dueling time machines next head for Spain, 1492, where Willy must convince Christopher Columbus that the world is actually round. The Italian sailor makes his historic voyage, but Von Rotten is aboard as a mutinous crewman. Up next is Medieval England, where Von Rotten has a plan to unsheathe Excalibur with the help of rust remover, thereby becoming England’s king in place of Arthur. With the help of a witch named Ms. Laffey, Willy and Pablo again try to stop Von Rotten’s evil deeds.
After England, Von Rotten travels to ancient Egypt. The dastardly professor poses as an architect, convincing King Tut to build a great statue in Von Rotten’s honor. Willy and Pablo, meanwhile, have time machine problems and get sidetracked in ancient Rome. Boy and monkey finally make it to Egypt and try to thwart Von Rotten’s plans, but the journey still isn’t over. The final destination is 40,000 B.C., Von Rotten’s last chance at greatness. The professor wants to be the first to invent the wheel and discover fire, but a hungry T-Rex named “Big Big” shows up to put a finishing touch on Von Rotten’s grand design.
Okay, so it wasn’t exactly educational or historically accurate, but Willy McBean and His Magic Machine did make history fun. With inventive designs, several original songs and the Rankin/Bass “Animagic” touch, the movie delighted young audiences in its theatrical release. It has since nearly disappeared, remaining only a happy memory for those who saw it.