The Wind in the Willows (Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride)

The Wind in the Willows movie poster

 

What’s this? Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride? A film written and directed by Terry Jones? I didn’t know he made anything after Erik the Viking. Wait, and it stars Jones & Eric Idle? With cameos by John Cleese and Michael Palin? Why, it’s practically a Monty Python movie… the only two missing are Graham Chapman, because he’s dead, probably, and Terry Gilliam, because he’s… American, perhaps. How could I possibly never have heard about this movie?

OK, let’s take a closer look at the DVD box. Released by Disney? Hm, that’s not necessarily a good sign. How about a quick web search. Wait, the original title was The Wind in the Willows? Why did Disney change it for home video? Did it not get a theatrical release? (A user comment on IMDB indicates Disney went straight to video with a different title)

Now let’s start playing it. Jones was never the visual stylist in the Python films (that was left to the other Terry). Willows looks kind of expensive, yet kind of cheap at the same time. Where’s Steve Coogan? He got first billing, but I don’t see him anywhere. Hey, there’s Eric Idle, with a silly rubber tail! Oh no, he’s not going to start singing a song, is he? Oh god, it’s a musical…

Ninety minutes later, my brains are dribbling out of my nostrils. This has got to be one of the worst movies ever made. Steve Coogan is practically unrecognizable (that’s him as The Mole). The great Stephen Fry shows up for a few blustery lines of dialogue but fails to elevate things. Terry Jones looks ridiculous in green face paint and a fat suit (I hope) that I suppose is meant to read as "toad." And sure enough, it was only a matter of time, he winds up in drag.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie poster

 

Yes, officer, I’d like to file a report. You see, I’m being threatened. I received word that If I don’t actually start writing stuff in my blog, I’m going to have my virtual pants pulled down in front of at least half a dozen complete strangers with well-tended blogs. Or is that if I DO actually start writing stuff… oh, I’m confused. Wait! Officer, where are you going? Oh well, I’ll just get on with a sentence or two about this DVD I just saw, and hope I remembered to put on presentable underthings this morning.

I’m one of THOSE people, you know the ones… while the rest of my peers obsessed over Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, I had my head stuck in Doctor Who and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I would drop my Nerf football or Legos every Saturday afternoon at 3 to run inside and catch Doctor Who on PBS. And for some unscheduled Brit-sci-fi fun, my collection (complete but always far from mint) of Douglas Adams paperbacks always waited for me.

So for me and my ilk, 2005 looked to be a great year — not only was Doctor Who regenerated (seemingly out of nowhere, when there was no hope to be had even by the most blindly optimistic of fans) by none other than the BBC itself, somebody at Disney (Disney?!) finally threw up their hands and actually made that Hitchhiker’s script that had been kicking around Hollywood for decades (not an exaggeration). Surely, some of my geek brethren must have grown up and scored jobs in the entertainment industry.

Not having been broadcast anywhere on this side of the planet, I’ve only managed to see less than half of the new Doctor Who season thanks to the wonders of internet piracy. I’m here to say that it is pure, glorious, totally-different-and-yet-somehow-still-Who. But Hitchhiker’s? It’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid. As a lifelong fan, it’s a bit surprising to find myself wishing the film was MORE mainstream. It’s hard to imagine anybody who had not read and reread the book (or at least already appreciative of some Monty Python-style humor) not being totally and completely bewildered by the whole production.

Some of the casting is so perfect as to be impossible to imagine otherwise: the voices of Alan Rickman and Stephen Fry, and wotsisname from The Office was surely born to play the definitive Arthur Dent. But as much as I like Mos Def, it has to be said he’s a mumbler (huh? what’d he say?). The filmmakers had the right idea to go for practical effects as often as possible, including some much-missed old skool puppet work from the Jim Henson Company, but it sometimes just doesn’t sit right paired with off-the-shelf-pow-zoom-blow-your-mind-just-like-the-last-blockbuster-you-saw-this-summer CGI.

I reread the book for the first time in years, and it struck me that the whole thing is actually quite short, focused, and satisfying. It shouldn’t have been too hard to fashion it into a movie, but evidently the producers (and Adams himself, who co-wrote the screenplay) felt otherwise, quickly abandoning the plot specifics of the novel. But if the aim is to create an easily-digested summer blockbuster story, why (just for example) introduce a seemingly significant character who incapacitates a major character, who then promptly drops out of the story and the situation is never resolved? And the whole business about Zaphod’s brain would make no sense at all to anyone who isn’t a Hitchhiker’s expert (I wouldn’t have understood it myself if I hadn’t reread the book so recently).

Anyway, I could go on but it’s late and I need to charge my iPod and myself (ie go to sleep). So I’m going to take my pants off anyway! Ha!