Years ago my friend and fellow actor Jeff Lane, while we talking about the pitfalls of children’s theatre, told me about a movie he had seen almost by accident, a movie of which I had never heard: a live-action version of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows directed by Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones, full of sly details for the older members of the audience. That was my modus operandi in the days when I was directing, and I put that in my To Be Tracked Down folder. It took me damned near 20 years to do it, and the reasons why are almost as obscure as the movie’s existence has become.
I’m going to assume a bit of familiarity with Grahame’s novel to move things along. If you’re not, well… reading is good for you.
The first notice that you’re watching an adaptation geared toward the kids of the 90s is immediate as Mole (Steve Coogan) – who in the book leaves his underground home because he is bored with spring cleaning – is instead rousted from his burrow when a bunch of heavy machinery (operated by literal weasels) destroys the meadow where it is located. Mole goes to his friend Ratty (Eric Idle), and they travel via boat to Toad Hall, because the meadow was owned by the extremely wealthy and extremely feckless Toad (Terry Jones). This is time-saving compression – in the book, Mole has to meet Rat, then Toad.
Toad is famously obsessed with the latest fads, monomaniacally embracing one for a few days, then discarding it for the next. The most famous of these – leading to Toad’s downfall – is the motorcar, a hot property in the novel’s 1906 setting. Toad’s constant crashes leads to several unnerving encounters with the weasels of the Wild Wood, and an intervention by an old friend of the Toad family, the stern Badger (Nicol Williamson), who places Toad under house arrest and cancels his order for six new motorcars. But the wily Toad will escape, steal a motorcar, crash it immediately, and go to prison for that crime. This is what the Weasels were waiting for, and they take over Toad Hall.
This brief synopsis covers what happens in most of the adaptations of Willows, ending with Toad’s escape from prison and he and his friends re-taking Toad Hall. What I haven’t gone into yet is Jones’ additions, playing off that initial change to the opening scene: the Weasels bought the meadow to build an enormous Dog Food Factory, and they intend to blow up Toad Hall just because they’re weasels. And say what you will about Kenneth Grahame and his novel, I somehow feel that the weasels preparing to drop Toad, Mole, Ratty and Badger into an enormous meat grinder wasn’t even in the preliminary notes for the first draft.
I don’t know what this says about Jones, or his view of what would appeal to the kids in the 90s; I will say that I (though as far from a kid in the 90s as you can get) found it tremendously entertaining. This strain of enthusiastic cartoon murder that runs throughout the third act, though, is likely what got the movie a PG rating from the MPAA. There are already tons of much more faithful adaptations in the world; it’s refreshing to find one that is quite its own creature.
The details that so impressed Jeff are about as subtle as one would expect from Jones’ oeuvre, which is to say that they are only subtle insomuch as nobody on screen stops and points at them exclaiming “Cor! Lookit that!” Whenever the ever-present rabbits are used as background characters, they are almost always making out. Similarly for weasels, they are almost always robbing rabbits in the background.
Overall, The Wind in the Willows feels like it’s a production by a well-funded children’s theatre. There is not much done to make the actors look like the animals they portray; Idle has whiskers and a tail, Jones is painted green. Most of the look is instead created by wigs and perfectly lovely costumes, especially Toad’s overly large Edwardian suits and the uniform frockcoats and wigs worn by the Weasels.
Steve Coogan is properly endearing and pathetic as Mole (even if he does have to follow a truncated Hero’s Journey), and Eric Idle channels a steady British Decency as the boat and picnic-loving Rat. Jones has a tightrope to walk as Toad, making the supercilious ego-maniac with ADHD somehow likeable, and manage it he does. Nicol Williamson is not allowed to have much fun as Badger, but then, that’s the character, innit? (Yes, that was my role in my actor days) Anthony Sher is another standout as the gleefully malevolent Chief Weasel, Stephen Fry has fun as the Judge, and John Cleese jobs in as Toad’s defense attorney, who is so overwhelmed by his client’s guilt that he does a far better job at convicting him than the prosecutor.
Is it Monty Python’s Wind in the Willows? Oh no no no, heavens no. Though I am quite surprised that it wasn’t marketed as such. Ah yes, marketing – you remember I mentioned Jeff’s seeing it almost by accident, and my subsequent inability to find it? There was some sort of shooting war going on between distributors, though I’ve only got hearsay as to causes and whys and wherefores, not much in the way of hard evidence. The Wind in the Willows wasn’t the cause but it was definitely a casualty, as Columbia wound up with the theatrical distribution rights, but Disney the home video rights. Theatrical distribution is vital to home video, and in what I can only interpret as spite, Columbia buried the movie.
Jeff’s viewing was one of the cursory screenings in America. There is an infamous tale of Jones in New York City, shooting a documentary, learning that the movie was playing in Times Square. One cab ride later, he found it playing “in a seedy little porno house”.
Disney nonetheless put it out on video in 2004. Ah, there’s the end of your journey, then, you may think. But no, I was still trying to find a copy to watch. My problem was I was looking for The Wind in the Willows. Disney, in order to have yet another movie based on one of their theme park rides, like The Haunted Mansion, had re-titled it Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (some junior marketing executive got lots of three-martini lunches out of that one). I remained unaware of this fact until, I believe, it was mentioned in Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film around 2012 or so. And then I could search for and buy the ancient, non-anamorphic DVD – which is now out of print. You can still buy it crammed onto a single DVD with three other Disney ride movies, and that’s it.
Which is a shame. This marked the end of Jones’ feature direction for almost ten years, and I generally enjoy his work (yes, I’m one of six people who will admit liking Erik the Viking). It kept me entertained for its length, and that can often be dicey for an adult watching children’s fare. The one false note struck is an ancient complaint for me: I regularly curse whoever it was who decided in antiquity that children’s entetainment must always be a musical. I despised these saccharine interruptions as a child, and I regard them no more kindly as an adult. The songs in Willows seem tacked on, with only the Weasel number having any of the wit or creativity of the surrounding material. But they do provide a good-looking sampler which will cue you in to whether or not this is a movie you’ll find worth seeking out (which you should, it’s pretty delightful, and deserving of better treatment):
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