Eye For Film >> Movies >> Tales Of The Riverbank (2008) Film Review
Tales Of The Riverbank may have begun its life as a black-and-white television series for children first made in 1959 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and redubbed (by Johnny Morris) for British viewers, but its lineage can be traced back at least as far as that perennial children's favourite, The Wind In The Willows, first published in 1908, where anthropomorphised creatures were also to be found adventuring along an idyllic river. Two subsequent series of Tales Of The Riverbank (retitled Hammy Hamster, after the show's main character) appeared in the Seventies and the Nineties respectively, and although they were now filmed in colour, they still adhered closely to the original concept (live animals 'wrangled' to move about miniature props and sets, and synced with human voices).
Now in their first feature-length outing, these riverside creatures would appear to have traveled a long way downstream from source, picking up all manner of cultural flotsam along the way. The extent of their departure is marked right from the opening sequence, in which the Owl, whose utterances had previously been restricted to the word 'who', here appears in a full CG version as none other than the film's rather grandiloquent narrator (voiced to perfection by Stephen Fry). All the other characters, however, have been realised through more traditional puppetry, which brings its own brand of nostalgia to compensate for the absence of any live animals.
The plotting, too, has been updated into something like a postmodern pantomime. There is, of course, an inherent absurdity to having rodent chums travel by boat, car and even plane around the countryside, but neither Wind In The Willows nor TV's different serial versions of Tales Of The Riverbank quite found the space in their surreal worlds to draw comparisons between the limpid streams flowing in this green and pleasant land and the more troubled waters snaking through war-torn Vietnam and Laos in Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) – or to lampoon the Anglo-American coalition against WMD. John Henderson's film has all this, as well as an anti-corporate, environmentalist message, some good old-fashioned pluck, and references to Star Wars, Jaws and James Bond. Oh, and it is sweetly funny, too.
When a storm causes the river to flood, winningly daft Hammy Hamster (Ardal O'Hanlon – think Father Dougal with fur) finds himself adrift in the company of new-found friends GP the Guinea Pig (Jim Broadbent) and Roderick Rat (Steve Coogan). When mousey Texan chanteuse Sonia (Morwenna Banks) is abducted by the sinister WMD Corporation (a one-time local producer of Waffles, Marmalade and Donuts now transformed by fat cats into a polluting money-maker), the trio sets out to rescue the gal and save the countryside – assisted by a schoolma'am rabbit, a psychic hamster, an American ex-marine comedian rat, a circus of performing fleas, a superhero pike (catchphrase: "Huzzah!") and an underground resistance movement known as BURP. In the three-pronged attack on the WMD factory that follows, derring is done, hearts are won – and it's definitely all in good fun.
If much of the hand-manipulated animation in Tales Of The Riverbank is amiably amateurish, that in itself helps to define the very Britishness – not to mention charm - of this (once Canadian) product. For much as the aquatic heroes' journey is an improvised, somewhat ramshackle affair, making use of whatever vehicles and tools they happen to find abandoned on the post-diluvian banks, so too the film itself has the feel of something cobbled together in the austerity years – and it is the better for such Aardmanesque qualities.
Add to this the fantastic voicecast, bringing to full life characters who might otherwise seem like little more than palsied teddybears, and you have a family movie of considerable appeal. For even when the world seems to be going down the toilet, this knowing yet somehow still innocent film allows you to imagine that you are still row-row-rowing gently down the stream.Reviewed on: 29 Sep 2008
If you like this, try:The Wind In The Willows