The Wind in the Willows has an undeniable charm about it. Directors Hall and Taylor send the first act of the film focusing on lovely details. Wind is stop motion, with a lot of intricate “set” decoration. And they do occasionally utilize their control over performers and location to get some excellent shots. Unfortunately, none of that ingenuity carries over to dealing with the characters and their storylines.
Some of the problem is Rosemary Anne Sisson’s teleplay. Sisson meanders from event to event. Most events involve Toad (voiced by David Jason), which is great. Toad’s ostensibly a lot of fun. Only most of his interactions with other characters are long shots in profile. Hall and Taylor are perfectly comfortable revealing the stop motion models’ lack of, well, fur, in close-ups, but they never bother to shoot anything from an angle. While some may be constraints of the sets, it’s not all.
Wind in the Willows is the story of four friends and there’s zero character relationship between any of them. Sisson’s script rushes the introduction of “leads” Mole (Richard Pearson) and Rat (Ian Carmichael) in a hurry to get to Jason. And Jason doesn’t really start paying off for a while. Eventually, Jason–and his musical numbers–hold Willows afloat, but not at the start. Sisson, Hall, and Taylor still need to get Pearson and Carmichael established.
They never really do. Sisson’s script is purely functional. All the sublime charm about riverfront life for adorable anthropomorphized British animals is from the stop motion. Outside the songs, nothing in the writing brings any of the charm. It’s sometimes so craven it does the exact opposite. As a result, Pearson and Carmichael aren’t the leads, they aren’t even friends. They don’t have enough time together.
And Michael Hordern, as wise old Badger, is a three dimensional pothole. Hordern’s characterization lacks warmth, Sisson’s writing lacks thought, and the character design is awkward. Badger doesn’t fit anywhere in Willows, not outside, not inside. Not even when he’s inside of his own house.
The Wind in the Willows coasts most of the way (and almost entirely downhill), it gets tedious when it should be exciting, it smacks of missed opportunity, but it does get through all right. Hall and Taylor end up having no idea what to do with the various constraints, though they do seem to understand Jason’s Toad songs are the best part.
Keith Hopwood and Malcolm Rowe’s music, however, is way too much. It tries so hard to be tranquil and just ends up being intrusive.
Directed by Mark Hall and Chris Taylor; teleplay by Rosemary Anne Sisson, based on the novel by Kenneth Grahame; edited by John McManus; music by Keith Hopwood and Malcolm Rowe; produced by Brian Cosgrove and Hall; aired by Independent Television.
Starring Richard Pearson (Mole), Ian Carmichael (Rat), David Jason (Toad), Michael Hordern (Badger), Una Stubbs (Jailer’s Daughter), and Beryl Reid (The Magistrate).