It's the first feature film of The Magic Roundabout, which is the English-language version of a French stop-motion animated children's TV series called Le Manege enchante. British critic Mark Kermode says it's one of his all-time favourite films, which I can understand.
Both this film and the original TV show are a bit nuts. A bit of background...
Le Manege enchante was created in 1963 by Serge Danot, assisted by Anglo-French animator Ivor Wood (The Wombles, Paddington Bear, Postman Pat). The BBC bought the rights to show an English-language version, but either by accident or design (almost certainly the former) their contract didn't include any script rights. Thus they had a choice. They could either pay extra to get the scripts and then more on top to have them translated into English, or else they could just ignore them and commission their own version. They chose the latter, giving the job to one Eric Thompson (father of Emma). The Magic Roundabout's scripts thus bore no resemblance to Le Manege enchante's originals, except by accident.
I'm specifically reviewing The Magic Roundabout here, by the way. The two shows are very different. It became really popular. Its audience reached eight million and it was also watched by adults, especially those who liked drugs. Its characters as realised by Thompson include Dougal (sardonic, slightly grumpy dog, loosely based on Tony Hancock), Zebedee (a jack-in-the-box with a magic moustache who bounces on a spring), Ermintrude (a cow who reminded me slightly of Dame Edna Everage) and a guitar-playing rabbit called Dylan who's the biggest stoner ever seen on children's TV. "I'm watching these crazy mushrooms grow. It's very tiring."
It's not actually funny, but it's got a seemingly infinite supply of surreal charm and Thompson's voice work is some of the most entertaining I've ever heard. The guy's brilliant! His Dougal is smug, self-satisfied and adorable. "Oh, I'm so talented." He also reminded me a little of Harry Secombe's Neddie Seagoon. "Silence, little springing fool." This film feels as if it's up there for quotability with Commando and Withnail and I, but on closer examination it turns out that the secret ingredient to make it work is Eric Thompson.
There's political subtext. Serge Danot probably had no idea anyone was going to do anything like that to his candy-coloured children's movie, but there it is.
1. Dougal starts by saying "vote Conservative", has dreams about a knighthood at the Palace and makes jokes about trains. "You're a public service vehicle, aren't you? It'd be quicker to walk, but she gets very upset." In fairness though, the train is in fact slower than a snail (whose name is Brian). "Funny, the things that upset the railways." He also talks of writing to The Times.
2. The villain (Buxton) has a Northern accent and his hideout is an abandoned factory. "Aye, that's the name, lad."
3. There's a cameo scarecrow who used to be in the Army and says, "I'd let you have a lettuce, but property is sacred. Funny chap. Needs a good haircut, by George."
4. Just when you think Thompson's about to start goose-stepping, we discover that Buxton's evil masters are the colour Blue. (Admittedly this is sort of a coincidence since Serge Danot wouldn't have been thinking of the British Tory party when he made his original film, but Thompson clearly wasn't ignorant of them.) True Blue wants to wipe out all other colours! You gain power with the Blue by being elevated through positions of privilege: knight, baron, lord, marquis, duke, prince, king... and once you've attained the latter, "I've every right to thump and rob!" This is also where he starts singing songs about "I'm so evil." Blue becomes fashionable with the Magic Roundabouters ("I'm in the mood for blue!") until they discover that Blue is Wrong and fight back!
Incidentally, for the first and last time ever in the history of The Magic Roundabout, there's a voice here that Thompson didn't do himself. Fenella Fielding's wonderful as the Blue Voice, although unfortunately the dates reduce one's ability to draw Maggie Thatcher analogies. (I mistook her for Judi Dench, incidentally.)
What of the raw material, though? The original movie is wacky too. The whole thing feels mildly hallucinogenic from start to finish, but Buxton's progression through the different levels of Blue is almost Lynch-like. The Room of Dreams. What the hell?
This movie is kind of wonderful. It's ostensibly for children, but Thompson isn't letting that restrain him. There's also a 2005 British CGI animated film with Tom Baker in it, but that's not the film I'm talking about today. (If you must watch that, incidentally, look for the relatively well-received British original rather than the redubbed American one with fart jokes and pop culture references that bombed almost as hard as anything can bomb.) The songs are fun, except maybe for "Shall we ever see the sun again?" It's faithful to the TV series, feeling exactly like a normal episode except that somehow it keeps going to feature-length without flagging in the slightest. A charming oddity.
The evil's role in its own downfall is stupid, mind you.
"Is this the co-op?"