Blowing in the wind
Brian Sibley has been to see the new British feature length cartoon When The Wind Blows.
Raymond Briggs is triffic! As Jim Bloggs would say, “Absolutely triffic!” I loved his funny little, pot-bellied Father Christmas, the thoroughly obnoxious Fungus the Bogeyman and the magical Snowman. And I was devastated by Jim and Hilda’s encounter with the bomb in When The Wind Blows. I should add that I adored the animated film made from The Snowman, which has become as much part of my Christmas ritual as Carols from Kings and readings from Dickens. But I have to say, and I wish it could have been otherwise, that I found myself decidedly under whelmed by TVC’s new film based on When The Wind Blows.
It is, I think, a convincing argument against the notion that a good book – even a good picture book – must necessarily translate into a good motion picture. It also serves as a warning to anyone believing it is easy to make a sequel to a success.
At first glance, it seems difficult to imagine two stories more dissimilar than The Snowman and When The Wind Blows. After all, the former is a book without words, while the latter is one of the wordiest comic-strips ever drawn. And whilst The Snowman was set in the wide open spaces of a child’s imagination, When The Wind Blows is set – apart from one or two flashbacks and fantasies – in the downstairs rooms of an ordinary little house in the Sussex countryside. And yet the two stories do have something in common in that they are both touched with the joy of love and with the sorrow of parting.
Whether this is what led producer John Coates and director Jimmy T. Murakami to see When The Wind Blows as a natural filmic successor to The Snowman, or whether they merely equated best- selling book with best selling film is uncertain. And equally uncertain – despite all the media hype – is whether the film’s reputed cost of £2 million will prove an investment or a gamble.
There are various reasons why, despite the obvious enthusiasm with which the project was undertaken, When The Wind Blows is an unsatisfactory movie. To begin with there are a number of problems resulting from the style and content of the book. There is the structure of the drama itself which, whilst concerning the horrors of global nuclear war, is seen only through the experiences and emotions of two very particular individuals. Whilst, in terms of story, this has enormous strength (and is, surely, one reason for the book’s success), it presents the film-maker with any number of difficulties. What is curious is that the director didn’t make more use of Raymond Briggs’ effective graphic device of interspersing the bumbling goings-on in the Bloggs’ claustrophobic living room with the awesome scenario being enacted ‘on a distant plain.., in the distant sky… in a distant ocean…’
Then there are limitations imposed by the depiction of the characters themselves. As drawn by Briggs, Jim and Hilda are simple, round-headed figures – rather like middle-aged Peanuts – a style which does not transfer well to the screen where their dot and line features are capable only of conveying very limited expressions.
And there are major problems resulting from the decision to use almost every word of dialogue from the book. What worked powerfully on the page (and in the superb radio play of the book) does not work half so well on film – even when brought to life by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft.
Too much script results in a verbal overkill that tries the mind, benumbs the emotions and leaves one increasingly irritated by Jim and Hilda’s extraordinary naiveté that borders on stupidity. It is no criticism of Raymond Briggs’ original blend of satire and fable to say that some judicious editing would have worked for greater impact. Less, as the saying goes, would have been more.
None of this would have mattered quite sc much had the animation itself been better. Although the producers have made much of the so-called revolutionary process whereby drawn animation is combined with model sets, very similar effects were achieved by Max Fleischer as early as the mid-thirties, with far greater 3-Dimensional reality than is found in When The Wind Blows. And anyone tempted to believe the publicity jaw that maintains the process used produces results which would be impossible with drawn animation, should take another look at the travelling perspective shots in Walt Disney’s 1935 Oscar-winning ‘Silly Symphony’ Three Orphan Kittens.
What makes matters worse is that the sets in When The Wind Blows really aren’t very good – sparse rooms with little furniture and next to no fittings other than a couple of lumpy vases and a huge pink plasticine telephone with an animated receiver.
Spicing up this rather dull and tedious format are a number of special sequences employing a variety of styles and techniques that, unhappily, do not work harmoniously with one another. There is, for example, a Hubleyesque dream sequence in which Hilda imagines herself as a buxom sprite flitting to and fro about a pastel landscape; a sequence using limited animation to depict the Bloggs’ courtship and marriage as a series of sepia snapshots; and the all-too-predictable set-piece showing the effects of the nuclear blast.
Animated in sombre shades on a swirling, muddy background, the camera appears to be hurtling across the countryside, as the wind blows… This of course, is the equivalent of the ‘Walking In The Air’ sequence in The Snowman – except that here the journey is a horrific one with trees being uprooted, animals tossed about, buildings blown over and vehicles piled into one another. It is, without doubt, the most powerful use of animation in the film, but also the most obviously contrived.
When you add live-action footage of army convoys thundering through villages at night, speeded-up cloud effects, and an inappropriate score of rock music by David Bowie and Roger Waters, you get a mishmash movie which almost overwhelms Raymond Briggs’ pathetic parable on the indestructible dignity of the common man. Almost, but not quite. The message, fortunately, is more powerful than the medium.
Crumbs, ducks, I hope so, anyway…
Printed in Animator Issue 19 (Summer 1987)