Judge Maurice Cobbs wonders if anybody else out there is really ticked off about the Disney suits' eighty-sixing Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
Our review of The Wind In The Willows: The Feature Films Collection, published January 25th, 2007, is also available.
The original feature-length film based on the classic tale.
Perhaps I've gotten used to the sort of "family fare" that the Powers That Be churn out en masse every year, because The Wind in the Willows rather caught me by surprise. Here is a fine example of everything family entertainment can be: colorful, charming, lively, and whimsical, without ever talking down to its intended audience, assaulting you with an endless string of crotch shots and fart jokes, or assailing you with an obnoxious pop music soundtrack by transient superstars who will be out of fashion in two months. Instead, the creators of this delightful and intelligent adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's classic children's story remain absolutely true to the spirit of the source material, bringing the characters to vivid life in a manner that both children and adults can enjoy. This is animation at its best.
Facts of the Case
The Edwardian English countryside is the setting for this whimsical children's story, which tells the adventures of four anthropomorphic friends. The shy, nearsighted Mole (Richard Pearson, Rashomon) decides one day to put aside his spring cleaning and instead enjoy the wonderful weather outdoors. He meets the gentlemanly, happy-go-lucky Rat (Ian Carmichael, Left, Right and Center), who invites him on a boating trip down the river. Rat introduces him to wealthy Toad (the always-wonderful David Jason, who voiced both Count Duckula and Danger Mouse), a good-hearted but rather eccentric fellow, whose newest flighty obsession—with motorcars—has gotten out of hand. Rat and Mole decide to enlist the stern but avuncular Badger ( Sir Michael Hordern, Theatre of Blood) to help them intervene—but can they protect Toad from the inevitable consequences of his mad passion? Beware: There are scheming weasels lurking about, just waiting to take advantage of the situation.
If I had to choose only one word to describe this film version of The Wind in the Willows, it would beyond doubt be lavish. I cannot recall seeing stop-motion animation with such detail, not only in the characters but in the surroundings as well. The characters are outfitted in very nicely tailored outfits that match their personalities to a tee (I'm especially fond of Toad's red-and-yellow checked suit), and you could watch the movie two or three times just to soak up all the little details and textures that add so much verisimilitude to the production. From Mole's small and humble little home to the grandeur of Toad Hall to the dankness of the prison, the amount of hard work that has gone into this movie is more than obvious. This attention to detail extends to the characters as well, with no twitch of the nose or facial expression overlooked. Stop-motion animation just doesn't get any better than this—and such extraordinary craftsmanship is rare in any field.
Performances here are top-notch. David Jason gives Toad an almost maniacal likability; you cannot help but be swept up willy-nilly in Toad's exuberance, even when you know that it can only end badly. Toad is, after all, that good-natured sort whose terrible mixture of recklessness, arrogance, and wild enthusiasm, coupled with perhaps a little too much easily-gotten wealth, combines to create a fun-loving but volatile personality. But actions have consequences, and this production is quite clear on that point; when Toad finally steps over the line, he must pay the price. Fortunately, he is gifted with good friends who will help see that the price he pays is not too terrible, and in the end, Toad does indeed learn his lesson. Until, of course, his eye is caught by some new fad or gizmo. It is also fortunate, then, that his friends can forgive him his nature.
There are some real scares and honest suspense in this production. One scene, in which Mole ventures alone into the Wild Wood, not fully realizing the dangers that lurk within, is quite effective, and actually had me a bit tense. The weasels are wonderful villains: quite scary, providing a real sense of menace—something that is sorely missing from most children's movies. The villains here do villainous things, and while it is true that they never resort to anything truly unsettling, the idea that the weasels are a definite threat to the characters is firmly established, so that when the final battle is being fought, you feel that there is actually something at stake.
The Wind in the Willows is a nice respite from the hyperactive, overblown, wild-eyed children's programming of today—when was the last time you saw a kids' movie that you could describe as relaxing? There are songs in the movie, but none of the loud, obnoxious Broadway-style productions or sugary, brain-rotting pop ballads that dominate most animated movies. Indeed, the entire movie is quite intimate, evoking thoughts of lazy Sunday afternoons and warm, cozy fires, making the film seem like a comfortable old blanket that you'd forgotten but can snuggle right into and feel young again. However, the quality of the digital transfer is not all that it could be; there is a fair amount of graininess, and the picture is not always clear. A stop-motion achievement of this scope should have received a bit more attention, I think; at the very least, a decently clean print would have been appropriate. I can find no fault with the Dolby Digital stereo, however, which was quite clear and had few noticeable problems.
There are special features provided for both kids and adults—an in-depth interview with producer Brian Cosgrove gets into the nuts and bolts of putting the film together, as well as animation in general. The "Toad's Road" trivia game is a diverting little bit of fun, and the photo gallery is quite lovely. Plus, detailed character descriptions invite you to get to know the principal characters in the movie.
This film was quite rightly appreciated by critics as well as audiences, winning both a BAFTA and an Emmy, and spawning two television series and another feature-length film. Any chance that A&E will release those as well? I certainly hope so, because entertainment of this quality is all too rare in these modern times.
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