[18 October 2006]
Contemporary children’s entertainment seems paradoxically grown up these days, marked by its frenetic pace, trend towards socially relevant themes, and the developing technologies like CGI that often deliver it. To animate is to give life, and CGI is struggling to overcome its inherently cold seamlessness and appear organic. To compensate for its shortcomings, it offers dazzling effects that surpass the limits of live action film. The Wind in the Willows is an enduring animated adaptation of an enduring British children’s book that is innocent in form and content yet is interesting enough for an adult to watch. It reminds us of what is lost with digital animation, and that stories can be simple diversions with all the ambition of a daydream.
The Wind in the Willows was a product of Manchester animation studio Cosgrove Hall, a collaboration between Brian Cosgrove and Mark Hall prolific in producing children’s television. The Feature Films Collection is a two-disc set containing the original film and a 1989 follow up, A Tale of Two Toads. Features include character descriptions, a trivia game, and a short interview with Brian Cosgrove, who surprisingly expresses his excitement for the future of computer animation.
Disc one, The Wind in the Willows, contains the 1983 feature film that faithfully adapted Kenneth Graham’s 1908 children’s book about four ultimately good-natured characters: stern and commonsensical Badger, gentle Mole, cheerful Ratty, and rich, daffy Toad. They enjoy a life of leisure consisting mainly of boat rides, picnics, and tea parties while wearing dandy attire. This idyll is occasionally threatened by the ragtag inhabitants of the Wild Woods—weasels and foxes out to steal Toad’s fortune or just cause mischief in general. The protagonists and antagonists are easily read as upper and lower class, and the basic message that unsavory types are to be avoided is tempered by Ratty’s kindly admission that the Wild Wooders have some redeeming qualities.
The plot, which meanders from leisurely lulls to mild action, mainly involves the friends getting Toad out of trouble. Toad lives alone in Toad Hall, a lavish mansion where he spends his time indulging his impulses. Most famously, he develops an obsession with motorcars that lands him in jail and public disrepute until his buddies reel him back down to earth and he agrees to behave like a gentleman. Disc two, 1989’s The Wind in the Willows: A Tale of Two Toads is more plot-driven, as Toad is kidnapped by the weasels and replaced by an imposter until his friends outwit the villains with clever schemes. Again friendship is the theme, but we get less description and more action.
The Wind in the Willows is strikingly rendered in stop-motion animation. This jerky, analogue language seems startlingly alive in contrast to our new age of animation. The awkward movements and handmade craft give warmth and life. The sets, props and puppets of are a hodge-podge of painted backdrops, dollhouse miniatures, rubber puppets, and lovingly detailed costumes. Each character’s house is as distinctly described as their dapper outfits. The lack of homogeneity makes a reflexive relationship between the innocence of the medium and that of the story. Its gentle, bucolic palette and varied textures provide a rich visual experience that offsets the film’s slowness. Camera shots that ease in from overhead or peek in from behind branches refer to our own human scale and make their world seem like the delicate diorama that it is. The overall effect is somewhere between watching a children’s pageant and peeking into a Joseph Cornell box. Charming, indeed.
A Tale of Two Toads is standard, story-driven children’s fare. It’s amiable and watchable, but the magic is lost a bit. Graham’s lazy pace is abandoned for a modern story arc, so we spend less time hanging out in the marshes and floating down the river. We’re not afforded the time to linger over artistic details or to let the nuances of mood seep in as they did in the original film. The characters and the overall look are basically the same but we lose atmosphere and detail. In general, the characterizations are not as gentle and flatten out a bit. Toad’s character becomes the lead, and his wildness and stupidity are exaggerated to the level of a typical cartoon.
The Wind in the Willows is a story for children, and despite its mild moralism and basic commentary on social class, it aspires to little more than entertaining. It is relaxed, gentle, and the product of a simpler attitude toward storytelling and animation for kids. However, the imagination and labor-intensiveness of stop motion animation yield a truly precious visual experience for the viewer of any age.