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This film is packed with nostalgia: of my childhood when I first watched this, of the first novel I read all by myself and of the lovely English countryside.
It's a wonderful adaptation of Wind in the Willows (interspersed with a little from Willows in the Winter). The graceful beauty of the river and its surroundings is captured marvellously in aquarelle-like animation. Light colours evoke the breezy simplicity of fond childhood memories of picnics outdoors and long walks.
And in all of this there is to be found the yearly grand adventure: seasons changing and new avenues beckoning. Ratty describes it best with his poet's heart when he hears some far off call he feels compelled to respond to.
The animation really is beautiful. The style chosen is so fitting for the settings and the story told, that you realise instantly why Disney-like animation would not have been right for this. The plot is dreamy, set in the countryside in warm afternoons and cold winter evenings. The fact that each frame is like an aquarelle painting is what makes the visuals match up so well with this. The paintings are like some old illustrations meant to go with the novel that have come to life and are flowing into motion. I could continue gushing about this forever, but I'll end by commending the artists for having achieved the impossible.
Ratty, Mole, Badger and Toad are all perfectly voiced, though I feel a special mention of Mayall's Toad is in order. Whoever thought of casting him in this part was possessed by utter genius. Toad is an over-the-top obsessive character whose energy and zest for life should instantly grab you, and Mayall has caught that completely. It's a troublesome, tiresome, irritating, friendly, genial, loyal animal that can't help falling from one trouble into the next. He's surrounded by friends who stand by him through his silly and at times infuriating antics. There's something endearing about all four of the main characters, but Ratty was always my favourite. Clever and always trustworthy, knowledgeable in the ways of the River, with an appreciation for Its beauty and a respect for Its mysteries.
There are many memorable scenes in this film, with adventures within adventures. Some standouts include Toad's frenzy about his new vehicle and the scene mentioned earlier where Ratty is considering heeding the distant call of a new adventure. Michael Palin's voicing of Ratty in this moment takes on a beautiful lyrical lilt and softness. It almost lulls you into the same spell and you want to rush out and follow that same adventure.
A particularly memorable scene is one where Ratty and Mole are looking for the baby otter Portly who's gone missing. Whilst rowing on the River searching for it, Ratty hears the mysterious sound of a pan-flute or was it the reeds rustling in the wind? He sees a face through the reeds, calling, speaking to his heart and whispering weird and wondrous things. When they eventually come upon the lawn where Portly has been playing, they just manage to see who the otter baby's been keeping company with. It's some mysterious God (the Greek Pan, I think) gently holding Portly, lovingly looking after it and taking care of it, while every animal was worried it might have met a tragic end. The vision disappears and a happy little Portly is taken back to its delighted father.
Later on, when he and Mole are rowing on the River again, Ratty tries to recollect the sight of that strange and wonderful creature whom he describes beautifully. He listens to some song welling up inside of him that is telling him that what he'd witnessed will slowly fade into a dream. And once again we see that strange and magical being dancing around on the grass and playing on its flute, its face slowly fading away through the reeds. Probably to reappear when it wants to dance and play its Panflute in the countryside once more. Or when it wants to make friends among the River's creatures.
A very lovely film indeed, for all ages. Highly recommended for lovers of the country and of the book.
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