The Video-of-the-Film-of-the-Book

Brian Sibley reviews animated film versions of three modern classics, now released on video.

“There are,” wrote A. A. Mime, “two well-known ways in which to make a play out of a book. You may insist on being faithful to the author, which means that the scene in the aeroplane on page 673 must be got in somehow, however impossible dramatically, or, with somebody else’s idea in your pocket, you may insist on being faithful to yourself, which means that by the middle of Act III everybody will realise how right the original author was to have made a book of it.”

Milne’s appraisal of the problems involved in adapting a book for the stage (taken from his introduction to Toad of Toad Hall, the play he wrote based on Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows), is no less true when devising that curious entity the film-of-the-book. On the face of it, it sounds easy enough – after all, you’ve got the plot and characters already worked out for you, and page upon page of dialogue to hand. The fact is, however, it’s harder than you’d think, and it’s not enough just to have good intentions. A. A. Milne had plenty of those, and yet Toad of Toad Hall is as much like The Wind in the Willows as Lionel Bart’s Oliver! is like Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. All the more remarkable then that Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass’ animated production of The Wind in the Willows (Channel 5 video CFV 02812) should be as good as it is.

Not too surprisingly, however, the film succeeds best in those episodes which feature the madcap exploits of Mr Toad: his all-consuming passion for the motor car – roaring through the countryside with screaming breaks, throwing up billowing clouds of dust; his short-lived performance as a tear-stained penitent; his audacious escape from prison and his frantic bid for freedom aboard a speeding steam engine, hotly pursued by another locomotive bristling with warders and police; and his triumphant return to recapture Toad Hall from the Stoats and Weasels.

Rather less successful are those sequences based on the book’s pastoral and mystical themes. A.A. Milne confessed to having “left out the best parts of the book, and for that, if he has any knowledge of the theatre, Mr Grahame will thank me.” And Walt Disney and his crew left out even more of the book (and re-wrote most of what was left) when they made their 1949 feature The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad. It is, therefore, greatly to Rankin-Bass’ credit that they have even attempted to include such episodes as the Wild Wood (here filled with sinister Rankhamesque trees looming up out of the darkness to menace Mole), and Ratty’s encounter with the sea-faring rat who disturbs his peace of mind with haunting tales of ships and seas and distant shores.

The problem, however, is that these passages have, of necessity, been reduced from major elements in the story to incidental curiosities that don’t altogether fit with the more robust theme of Toad’s adventures. The one episode which proves entirely beyond the director’s grasp – but surely not beyond the skills of animation – is that exquisitely ethereal chapter entitled “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”. It doesn’t matter that Portly has become a baby badger rather than a baby otter, but it matters desperately that the great hoof-footed god of the forest has been re-cast as minute, insubstantial will-o’-the-wisp that is neither Pan nor Puck.
Nevertheless, there is still the glorious Toad, battling with petty railway officials, fat-faced policemen and belligerent barge-women. And he has been brought well enough alive to please everyone – even those who, like myself, miss the story’s elemental magic and find its art direction and animation somewhat bland and unenchanting.

The Sword in the Stone. Merlin puts his magic to work on a dish washing assembly line. All The Sword in the Stone illustrations copyright The Walt Disney Company MCMLXXXVI.

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