Judge Clark Douglas once got caught sneaking around in Mr. McGregor's garden. The experience scarred him for life.
You've heard the stories read…now see them danced!
I must admit, I silently groaned when I discovered that I would be reviewing Tales of Beatrix Potter. Oh, I like Beatrix Potter just fine. In fact, a few months prior to this, I reviewed a delightful BBC television series offering numerous animated adaptations of various Potter stories. I grew up with the stories, and found them wonderfully entertaining as a very young child. However, I wasn't too excited about reviewing this particular DVD? "Why," you undoubtedly just asked yourself. Well, I had heard that Tales of Beatrix Potter was a ballet. Dear reader, though I consider myself a somewhat cultured individual (I have my NPR tote bag to prove it), I've never been able to get particularly enthusiastic about ballet in general. Aside from a few obligatory trips to see The Nutcracker during the holidays, my familiarity with the medium as a whole was woefully limited. A ballet about Beatrix Potter characters certainly didn't sound particularly interesting. What would it be like? Ninety minutes of animals dancing around on a stage? No, thank you.
I shouldn't have worried. Not only is Tales of Beatrix Potter a perfectly tolerable viewing experience, it's actually a rather entertaining one. The ballet was created in 1971 by director Reginald Mills and composer John Lanchberry. Mills was a film editor who had previously won an Academy Award nomination for his work on another film featuring a lot of ballet, Powell and Pressburger's sublime The Red Shoes. Here, he takes the most simple and direct of Potter's tales available, offering even more simple interpretations of the stories through dances. The dances are choreographed by Frederick Ashton, who allows the affair to become amusingly clumsy at times. There's a distinct (and intentional, I suspect) lack of precision and perfection here, allowing the characters to seem a bit realistic and relatable, if that makes sense. I have absolutely no doubt that the members of the prestigious Royal Ballet could have pulled off something much more impressive if they had wanted to, but the name of the game here is entertaining children. Meanwhile, Lanchberry supplies an entertaining and very energetic score that works wonders when paired with the images, even there aren't any particularly memorable pieces that you will be whistling when the film is over.
Tales of Beatrix Potter seems to have a particular fondness for the self-absorbed fools that populate some of Potter's stories. Peter Rabbit steals vegetables out of Mr. McGregor's garden, dancing around mindlessly with glee about actually having pulled off such a minor feat. A couple of mice invade a dollhouse, and start smashing things when they discover that the delicious-looking food within the house is made of plaster. Jemima Puddle-Duck very nearly allows herself to be cooked by an exceptionally crafty fox. Mr. Jeremy Fisher goes fishing for minnows, but instead almost winds up the victim of a much bigger pond resident. All of these mishaps and misadventures are staged in gorgeous rural settings, which made this a rather unique cinematic experience for me. Off the top of my head, I cannot recall seeing a filmed ballet which did not take place on some sort of stage. There's also something a little creepy about seeing six-foot-tall mice prancing around through a meadow, but never mind all that.
No dialogue whatsoever is employed at any point during the film, leaving the storytelling entirely up to the dancing and choreography. I think that Tales of Beatrix Potter mostly pulls it off rather well, even if a few of the details may get lost in translation. For instance, we realize that Mr. Jeremy Fisher has been spit out by the giant fish that swallowed him, but we don't realize that it had anything to do with Mr. Fisher's galoshes. Of course, some of the people viewing this ballet will very likely be Beatrix Potter fans, and as such will be able to fill in some of the details on their own. Also of interest is the way Mills manages to weave the stories together here and there, giving the viewer the feeling that all of this stuff is taking place within the exact same general area. The costumes are also worth noting, which beautifully replicate the gentle drawings from Potter's books. Well done. If the film has a fault, it is that it may be a little dull to many young children (the audience it is primarily intended for). It won't be for every child, but I know that there are plenty of kids out there who will just eat this stuff up.
The transfer is quite solid for a film nearly 40 years old, with rather vibrant colors and an absolute minimum of scratches and flecks. The grain onhand is barely noticeable. There's just a small amount of color bleeding here and there, and the level of detail isn't particularly impressive, but overall I'm satisfied with the transfer. The audio is basically all about the music, since the film features no dialogue and very few sound effects. The mono audio track is perfectly clean, but it would have been great if someone had put together a 5.1 mix (or at least a stereo mix). Oh, well. There are no extras on the disc.
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