Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Wind in the Willows

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Wind in the Willows

[This post is an entry in Moon in the Gutter's MIA on Region 1 Tribute Month.]

When preparing for this post, I dug my copy of The Wind in the Willows out from underneath about twenty other videotapes, toppling a few of them in the process. I figured this couldn't have been good for the condition of a 22-year-old VHS, and indeed, upon inserting it in the VCR my worst prognosis seemed confirmed. The picture was dismally dark so that the animated characters' features were obscured and the backgrounds could not be distinguished. In addition, the tracking was awful and the whole experience resembled watching some garbled dispatch from outer space. Yet the sound was fine, which only added to whole surreality thing. All in all, I took the catastrophic destruction of a childhood memento in stride. I considered a poignant blog post along the lines of "all things must pass," but first I played around with the VCR a bit and discovered it was a technical problem. There the tape was, restored to its full glory, eventually even without tracking issues. Yet the distanced, warping effect of the first images lingered in my mind and colored how I saw the rest of the movie.

In 1987, in an event which I dimly recall, my father taped an ABC airing of The Wind in the Willows, a Rankin/Bass animated production of the Kenneth Grahame classic (I still own a lavishly illustrated edition thereof). The cartoon, watched again and again on various occasions, was woven into the fabric of my childhood and as the years passed, it became more and more a relic of some half-forgotten, romanticized era. We only taped one commercial break, but it distinguishes the entire tape with its colorful Fruit Loops spots, uber-80s scored Capri Sun bits, and claymation galore. Every time the channel is ready to break for a commercial, a claymation cowboy stands in front of a brick wall and croons, "After these messages, we'll be riiiight back," (later a 50s chorus replaces him). The juxtaposition of these once-modern, now-fondly-dated artifacts with the wistful, pastoral Edwardian milieu of Grahame's tale only adds to the impression that one is looking through some kind of portal across time (perhaps several layers of time).

So far I've spoken only of the nostalgic aura around watching the movie. As for the movie itself, it's hard to be objective (as I've already demonstrated, just the experience of sliding into the VCR triggers all sorts of associations and minor epiphanies). The animation is admittedly not Disney-calibre; often the backgrounds are surprisingly flat and there is little of the virtuoso inventiveness one finds filling out the corners of Uncle Walt's classics. Yet the visuals are often just suggestive enough to evoke the proper mood of quasi-mystical reverence of nature, and especially the tremulous bowing before the Holy Trinity of the Willows story: the River Bank, the Wild Wood, and the Wide World.

The music is something else. I'd describe it as full-fledged, which leads to occasionally overwrought missteps (the song accompanying Toad's various motor mishaps) and plunges into sentiment which are either poignant or treacly depending upon your sensibility (Judy Collins singing the title track). But there are a number of delightfully idiosyncratic numbers, including Badger bellowing his misanthropic anthem "I Hate Company," a courtroom of ghoulish jurors (all the human beings in this film look positively wretched, which is at once fascinating and repellent) crooning about Toad's guilt, and my personal favorite, the army of weasels decadently vandalizing Toad's home while the amphibian languishes in prison for grand theft auto. The furry hooligans cackle to one another about drinking Toad's champagne, smoking his cigars, and writing on his stationary. "Writing on another man's stationary?" the head weasel gasps, as the music comes to a sudden halt. "No gentleman would ever write on another man's stationary!" The weasels agree not to do so, resume their throaty chorus and are summarily interrupted when their leader feels they've reached another social faux pas (invariably something relatively minor compared to the havoc they're wreaking).

The music also floats in the background of many scenes, embodying the subtle melancholy which undergirds Grahame's warm prose in the book. Two scenes stand out in this regard; they are my two favorite scenes from the story, and both scenes are often excluded from adaptations of Wind in the Willows. Their inclusion here, coupled with my childhood connection to this film, goes a long way to confirming this as my favorite version of the story. The first scene finds Ratty in a wistful mood, tossing his scraps of abandoned poetry into the river and dreaming of following some vague wanderlust. A salty old sea rat hobbles down to Ratty's dock and, with a little prodding, relates glorious visions of Grecian ports and Venetian canals, of smelling the salty air and traveling towards the sunset aboard a ship bound for God knows where.

The imagery and the music carry on the resonant romanticism of the passage, which is one of the key moments in Grahame's narrative (here it is tied into the following scene, whereas in the book it appears in its own closed-off chapter, one reason why it's so easily axed from the plot). I don't want to write too much about this scene, nor about the passage which follows, featuring a mystical encounter with the piper at the gates of dawn, because I think I'm going to post something I wrote a few years ago about the book and these chapters in particular. But the fact that the film chooses to include these moments shows that it understands something about the story's spirit, something which so many other adaptations miss. They get the appeal of Toad's character and his various adventures, and they seem to understand the laconic, warm spring day feel of the English countryside which permeates the story's sensibility. But they miss the melancholy, the restlessness, and the mysticism which sharpens the mood of the book and makes it so powerful for readers well into adulthood.

Partly as a result of including these scenes, the movie gives all four major characters their due; in other versions, Toad's expansive, spoiled, charismatic immaturity eclipses the more subtle personalities of his friends and commandeers the narrative as if it was one of the shiny motor cars he's prone to pilfer. But here Moley's plainspoken curiosity and Badger's headstrong, confident authority are given ample coverage. Most notably, Ratty manages to straddle his offputting prickliness and stirring romanticism and emerges as perhaps the central figure of the story. This is due in large part, I think, to that elusive, magical echo in Roddy McDowell's voice. The actor is wonderful as Ratty, and even after discovering - to my impressed surprise - who was speaking through that whiskered mouth, I still hear the character while watching the movie and the same goes for all the major actors in the cast: Charles Nelson Reilly as Toad, Jose Ferrer as Badger, and Eddie Bracken as Mole. Though none of these (except perhaps Reilly) would seem obvious choices, each one fits the part brilliantly, and this is really phenomenal voice casting when you think about it.

Wind in the Willows is a unique adaptation, and one whose appeal is hard to put your finger on. It follows the book's loose structure; but without Grahame's flowing prose to smooth the bumps, it ends up seeming a little more haphazard than it should as it jumps from one adventure to the next. It is not lean, nor especially slick, but it's got something: a darkness as Mole descends into the netherworld of the Wild Wood, a wistfulness as Ratty is encouraged to dream of far-off places, a baroque elegance as Toad parades before a mirror in his estate, a fertile sensuality as Pan guides the woodland creatures on a midnight search through the brooks and eddies of the river bank timber. In other words, it points outward in other directions, allowing the mind to wander, off towards the horizon, dreaming of what foreign ports are calling out with the siren's lilt, what creepy forests invite fearful explorations in the dead of night, what shiny motor cars sit humming along at the edge of a dirt road somewhere, sputtering in the crisp air, gleaming in the early-morning sunlight, just waiting to be taken for a joy ride.



Read my complete and exhaustive "Wind in the Willows" series from a few years later, examining the book and film adaptation in detail.

17 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

I've never seen "The Wind in the Willows," but you do a terrific job here of allowing me to see it through the prism of your childlike fascination and your adult objectivity. Both are valid. A very enjoyable read.

MovieMan0283 said...

Jason, glad you enjoyed it. For whatever reason, perhaps unwarranted by the demands of readership, I am planning to embark on a series of WITW posts, analyzing how different films adapt the source; I think I'll follow this with a series on Great Expectations, another of my favorite books. As I said to FilmDr., go your own way and hope others follow...

Sam Juliano said...

"The music also floats in the background of many scenes, embodying the subtle melancholy which undergirds Graham's warm prose in the book. Two scenes stand out in this regard; they are my two favorite scenes from the story, and both scenes are often excluded from adaptations of Wind in the Willows. Their inclusion here, coupled with my childhood connection to this film, goes a long way to confirming this as my favorite version of the story. The first scene finds Ratty in a wistful mood, tossing his scraps of abandoned poetry into the river and dreaming of following some vague wanderlust. A salty old sea rat hobbles down to Ratty's dock and, with a little prodding, relates glorious visions of Grecian ports and Venetian canals, of smelling the salty air and traveling towards the sunset aboard a ship bound for God knows where."

The music you celebrate here is most intriguing, especially since you claim it is an invaluable underpinning to these two wonderful scenes you describe in this timeless and inspirational children's classic featuring Mole, Ratty, Mr. Toad and Mr. Badger.
Your deep love for this work is understandable, and I would surely rank it up there with E. B. White's CHARLOTTE'S WEB and Richard Adams's WATERSHIP DOWN in my own affections. It is a life-affirming work, and rightly would and should become somewhat of a literary obsession, carrying over into various film adaptations. i am very sorry to say that I have not seen the 1983 version (after checking all the specs) but thought you were referring to the more famous 1987 version, which I do highly regard.
As much as you revere this particular transcription, your writing goes into the stratosphere with this magisterial final paragraphy, which surely is a selling point for me:

"Wind in the Willows is a unique adaptation, and one whose appeal is hard to put your finger on. It follows the book's loose structure; but without Graham's flowing prose to smooth the bumps, it ends up seeming a little more haphazard than it should as it jumps from one adventure to the next. It is not lean, nor especially slick, but it's got something: a darkness as Mole descends into the netherworld of the Wild Wood, a wistfulness as Ratty is encouraged to dream of far-off places, a baroque elegance as Toad parades before a mirror in his estate, a fertile sensuality as Pan guides the woodland creatures on a midnight search through the brooks and eddies of the river bank timber. In other words, it points outward in other directions, allowing the mind to wander, off towards the horizon, dreaming of what foreign ports are calling out with the siren's lilt, what creepy forests remain invite fearful explorations in the dead of night, what shiny motor cars sit humming along at the edge of a dirt road somewhere, sputtering in the crisp air, gleaming in the early-morning sunlight, just waiting to be taken for a joy ride."

MovieMan0283 said...

Glad you appreciated it, Sam. In which case you will definitely enjoy my upcoming series, where I break down the story and examine how each adaptation (or as many as I can get ahold of) interprets and modifies the events in question.

Sam Juliano said...

I greatly look forward to this series Movie Man.

Fox said...

Hey MovieMan-

My favorite thing about this is how serious you not only take this - probably forgotten - animated movie adaptation, but how serious you took the entire experience of the videotape it was recorded on ("We only taped one commercial break...". A whole generation can relate to that unique experience right there).

This post is a great dedication to youth, and also to not so quickly getting rid of those black rectangle boxes that are in boxes on our shelves.

Having finally gotten a HD television, I need to figure out how to get my VCR attached. I don't wanna let go of those old experiences.

MovieMan0283 said...

Fox, nor should you. I seriously see no reason to get ready of many of my VHS tapes, particularly the ones that contain Academy ratio films. Admittedly, there are quite solid economic reasons for feeling this one, but there are aesthetic justifications as well. Even some of the pan-and-scan butcher jobs are hard to let go of. I mean, the early 90s Indiana Jones tapes which were the first "official" entries in my collection? The several generations of Star Wars (the initial CBS/Fox versions, the THX-remastered ones, finally the Special Editions in widescreen - which I never chose to watch). Most importantly, what about the previews, or other before-feature content? It never quite seems right to watch Forrest Gump without seeing previews for Braveheart, Congo, and The Indian in the Cupboard. Or Raiders of the Lost Ark sans the Young Indiana Jones promo (which can stand alongside The X-Files as a show I idolized as a child without ever actually watching). And to return to Star Wars, while I have little use for the Leonard Maltin-George Lucas sit-downs now, a whole wave of nostalgia can come washing over me just from watching those CBS/Fox tape promos, the ones with the "in a world"-type narrator: the way it can remind me of a time when I was naive enough to wonder who the little green puppet was and why the old man was fighting the guy (on the down-side this preview also contains the immortal spoiler, Luke asking, "Is Vader my father?" Uh, nobody who's watching this preview and hadn't seen the movies before asked, but...).

But the most irreplacable artifacts are those legions of videos taped from television...Oscar broadcasts from 1996, the MTV doc on Tupac told entirely through music and captions (why did they discontinue that show?), random terrible TV-movies, and going much further back, this Wind in the Willows tape which I am considering loading onto You Tube in its gloriously haphazard entirety.

elgringo said...

Great post. I used to love ABC when I was growing up. They would always air the best non-Disney/Nickelodeon stuff. I remember their Saturday morning kid movie screenings really well. The Mouse and the Motorcycle! LOVED IT! The Wind and the Willows is a classic, glad to see your tape eventually played well. Make me want to dig through my collection of old tapes.

MovieMan0283 said...

Elgringo, I remember The Mouse and the Motorcycle too, though in that case it was purchased tape rather than recorded off TV. Did they stuff & use a dead mouse for that? Sure looked like it...kind of creepy, and kind of awesome if that were to be true...

Have you seen this version of Wind in the Willows? It seems like it's rarer than I would have expected, perhaps one of the lesser-known adaptations, which is unfortunate because as I laid out, it's pretty intriguing. If nothing else, a great cast...

Anonymous said...

movieman,
wow. i have been looking for the last 18 months or so for someone else who has actually seen this movie, let alone loved it as much as me and has it recorded onto video! after i had found my childhood collection of movies taped off the tv i found that 4 or 5 of my favourites had been partially taped over by my inconsiderate father some years ago with tv shows such as mash, father and son and rumpole. needless to say i am huting down dvds of these for my 3 year old to be intoduced to and so far have 1. You might have seen my other favourites - chitty chitty bang bang, pete's dragon, secret garden(1987). I have found chitty on dvd, pete's dragon on vhs and am having extraordinary trouble with wind and secret garden. thank you for sharing your love of this film.

MovieMan0283 said...

Anon, thanks for dropping by. Stick around - that Willows series I mentioned over a year ago is actually now in the works, and should finally go up in a month or two on this blog. It will discuss not only the book and this particular adaptation, but all the adaptations I was able to see.

And while it's not DVD, the Rankin-Bass film is now available on You Tube - check it out here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8WVOMyNxr4&feature=channel_page

Julie Arsenault said...

I had seen the film on YouTube, and I love it! A must-see for a Rankin/Bass fan!

hazrod said...

I had a similar experience with this movie last night. Home for the holidays, I was rifling through our old VHS collection, strewing them all over the place, for a comfort film. I used to watch Wind in the Willows whenever I had a fever and had to stay home from school. Ours was a scrambled version, taped in '87 when I was two. I hadn't seen it in over fifteen years. Anyway, your assessment is pretty spot on. Moreover, I don't think I can give an objective view on it either.

I couldn't help but feel these strong emotions throughout, because this movie too was woven into my childhood. The part where Moley is lost in the wild wood still sends shivers down my spine and gives me the goose bumps. I wasn't scared, but my body still reacted to cues too old and deep.

And when Moley worries of having to face the wild wood again, and Badger tells him about the Pan, who watches over all small creatures, I sobbed like a baby. I'm not sure if that part is even in the book. But then Ratty goes on to tell how much of a blessing home is, "an anchorage in one's existence, which could always be counted on for a simple welcome."

I likewise cried when Mole and Badger look for Ratty and Badger's little nephew, and find them curled up together beneath a tree. Pan watching from a high limb. What a wonderful story about contentedness and restlessness, friendship and care. How hard it can be to change your friends. How deep and durable bonds of friendship can be in spite of sheer jackassery. And what great tunes!

Thanks for the youtube link. I finally got to see the first fifteen minutes my mother missed when she taped it all those years ago.

MovieMan0283 said...

Wow, sounds like we had the same experience - even to the point of missing the beginning on the tape (I never saw it either until I found that You Tube clip).

Check out the "Wind in the Willows" link on the sidebar (under "Explore The Dancing Image") if you want to read more on the book/films, or just see some screen-caps from the Rankin/Bass adaptation as well as the other ones.

Anonymous said...

I just came across your review when searching out of curiosity for others who have seen this version, and have to say your words make me a bit teary with my own nostalgia!

this film was on repeat in our house when I was very young, far more than any disney film i would ever watch. I held it up with the likes of Watership Down and Last Unicorn, and I think it's as you mention in your review, there is a darkness, or perhaps it's just the whimsy and how it takes time with characters such as Ratty, which really appealed to me then, and still does now. In particular the sea rat scene always stuck with me, for all the reasons you mention.

There is definitely something in this version, just a shame it hasn't gotten a dvd release yet! many thanks for your review!

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Anon! I always love to hear from people who experienced this (relatively) rare treat as children. You may have noticed it already on the sidebar but if not, here's a link to the series I ended up doing on the book and all its film adaptations:

http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2010/11/wind-in-willows-conclusions.html

And lots of great pictures...

Scavenger Monk said...

Comes out on DVD November 10th, 2015!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!