Ah, the Wind in the Willows, a classic children’s story first told by author Kenneth Grahame, first published in 1908. The most famous incarnation came from the late 40’s thanks to the Walt Disney Company, who released a double-feature film with The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. But few people remember this animated film from the early 80’s, produced by Thames Television and using the process of stop-motion animation. Now, I never saw this film when I was a child, but I did see the long-running animated series, which was also in stop-motion, because they used to play it on PBS once a week.
The story is known to all who have read the book: It revolves around four friends: Mole, Rat, Badger, and the eccentric and wild Mr. Toad, who spends his time going from one obsession to another. When Toad gets himself arrested for stealing a motorboat (no kidding!), and the country weasels (who look like 50’s juvenile delinquents) crash on Toad Manor, Mr. Toad’s country estate. Toad is able to escape prison by dressing as a washing woman, and together the four friends go and have a fight with the weasels to take Toad Hall back. Yep, the story is very faithful to the original book, with its themes of English society permeating over to the countryside, from the point of view of the animals. The voice casting is great, particularly David Jason who plays Mr. Toad, and laughs just like Pee Wee Herman. But the main draw to the film is, of course, the stop-motion animation. It’s just awesome, being able to make the characters interesting to look at, while keeping a fantasy vibe intact. The best sequences involve the Weasels, particularly the three main scenes. When Mole gets lost in the woods, and later when they attack Badger in Toad Manor, the Weasels are made out to be really scary creatures, and they behave in an almost inhuman fashion. The way these movies are cut, with quick edits and claustrophobic close-ups and tilted shots, give the sequences real suspense and terror, and they’re pretty intense for a children’s film. The third sequence involves the third act itself, where our four animal friends fight against the weasels in Toad Manor. The animation is flawless, being as frantic and energetic as a cartoon, only with the stop-motion, it’s given a whole new dimension in awesomeness. Sadly, and this is going to piss off the arthouse types, I actually like the Disney version more. Not that this is a bad film by any means, it’s quite excellent. The problem is, I’ve never thought that the story lent itself to the long film format, I believe it works better as a short. The Disney film has great pacing, and sadly this movie does not, sometimes feeling like you’re being dragged on. The story of Wind In The Willows has been told and retold many times in film, sometimes even using live-action actors instead of animals. How boring. This is one of the best, and I recommend it for it’s great music, great voice acting and top-notch animation. I wish I had toys of these four characters.