Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Animals of Farthing Wood Do America: Part 3

After the incident at the swimming pool, Journey Home skips over a large a number of events from Episodes 2 and 3.  These include the animals having to cross a road at dawn (during which Toad runs into some trouble but is rescued by Fox and Owl), the animals being disturbed by the activities of soldiers as they trek across military training grounds, and the Newts deciding to drop out of the journey altogether and remain at a marshland.  By the time we rejoin the animals, in fact, we're already at the halfway point for Episode 3.

20.08 - Included is a scene in which one of the Squirrels picks up an explosive device but throws it away at the insistence of Fox, only for it to explode near Mr. Pheasant and burn his tail feathers off.  This was a good call continuity-wise, as Mr. Pheasant spends the remainder of his screen time with visibly charred tail feathers.  Of course, since Journey Home never explicitly establishes that the animals are on military training ground, the appearance of an explosive device here seems a lot more random.

21.03 - As with the original series, we see an ominous shot of a human throwing a cigarette stub upon the grassland, and then cut to Mole asking Badger if he can get down from his back.  Mole hints that he needs to urinate, as he "drank a lot of water with those worms", although seeing as how Journey Home missed out an earlier scene in which Mole is actually seen slurping down earthworms, this statement isn't given any context.

Journey Home cuts out much of the dilemma faced by Badger when he's required to take charge in Fox's absence, only not all of the party are accounted for - Adder still hasn't caught up with the others, and Mole has disappeared underground in pursuit of more earthworms.  Missing is a scene with Badger panicking when he realises that Mole nowhere in sight and refusing to allow the other animals to begin fleeing without him.  Gone also is Badger's eventual solution to allow Adder and Mole exactly two hundred heart beats to catch up with the rest of the party, otherwise they will be forced to leave them for dead.

22.31 - Adder makes it to the group in time, but the animals cannot afford to wait around for Mole any longer.  As they begin to make their way through the smoke, Journey Home omits Owl's rather tactless efforts to console Badger using one of her pearls of wisdom: "He who can lose friends and home and still remain calm is beyond all grief."

23.29 - As Fox and Toad are reunited with the other animals, Journey Home adds in the sounds of an approaching fire engine siren.

Needless to say, Journey Home omits the scene in which Toad recounts how the fire started, and how fortunate the animals were that the winds were blowing the fire away from them, in the direction they had just traveled.  No need to drop any hints about the Newts' grisly fate when they were never officially brought up in the first place.

23.39 - After Mole tunnels to the surface and begins weeping, believing that the other animals have all been wiped out in the fire, we hear the sounds of footsteps as one of the firefighters approaches, although the scene cuts away as soon as the human's boot looms into the view.  In the original, the well-intentioned firefighter picks up Mole and places him in his pocket, from which he is later seen escaping.  Journey Home implies that the human walked directly up to Mole, but either didn't notice him or didn't care.

Journey Home also leaves out a scene in which the animals are required to cross a causeway to an island in order to put a stretch of water between themselves and the fire - after Mole's (truncated) encounter with the firefighter, we rejoin the animals and find them already gathered upon the island.

25.50 - The scene fades out where Episode 3 ended, with a shot of the rain falling over the wetlands.

25.52 - Onto the events of episode 4.  As with Episode 3, the opening scenes, which show the animals struggling to cross the muddied farmland in the rains, have been omitted, and the film picks up with them already making their way toward the barn.

28.56 - More film-exclusive sound effects - as the rains cease and the skies begin to clear over the farm, Journey Home adds in the sounds of a rooster crowing.  In the original series, no such sound was heard and for very good reason.  There, the farmer discovers that his chicken coop has been raided by a fox and promptly takes his anger out on Bruno for failing in his duties as a guard dog. The verbal abuse that Bruno endures has largely been excised from Journey Home - instead, it's the farmer merely calling to Bruno that is implied to have roused Mrs. Pheasant.

Mrs. Pheasant's death happens exactly as it does in the original, although all glimpses of her dead body are restricted to silhouette form, when the farmer holds it up to threaten Bruno.  The close-up shot, as Owl observes the farmer carrying off her lifeless body, does not appear here.

In the original series, the farmer makes the rather foolish mistake of sitting down to a full roast dinner before returning to the barn with a fully-loaded shotgun, thus accounting for the luxurious amount of the time the animals have in which to pull off their escape plan.  No such explanation occurs in Journey Home, so I guess we're to assume that he's just a really slow walker.

30.28 - Weasel's line, upon being hit by a wad of dirt from Mole's tunneling, is slightly different in Journey Home.  Here, she sarcastically says, "Thanks for the warning!", whereas in the original she remarks, with a similar degree of sarcasm, "There's thanks for you!"

31.06 - We see a brief glimpse of Bruno growling at Adder, but Journey Home removes the verbal exchange between the two.  In the original, Bruno comments that he would like to get his teeth into Adder, at which point Adder warns him, wittily, that her bite is worse than her bark.

32.09 - After Fox is seen clearing the tunnel, the film immediately cuts to a scene with the animals unwinding at the safety of the copse.  Omitted from Journey Home is the second portion of their escape, in which they have to climb up a hillside with Bruno in hot pursuit.  In the original, this leads to a confrontation between Fox and Bruno, during which Fox is finally able to persuade Bruno to back down by convincing him that it would not be worth his while to kill him.

33.54 - We're into Episode 5! Mr. Pheasant volunteers to go back for Adder, at which point the film immediately fades into the scene with him arriving at the farm.  In Journey Home, he never actually explains his reasons for wanting to return to the farm (ie: to see his wife's final resting place), nor do we get any of the issues with the Hares rebuking him or him being such a terrible flier.

As the rat in the barn notices Adder sneaking up behind it and flees, its scream has been muted out for some reason.

Pheasant meets his end in much the same manner as the original series, only sans one very important element - which is to say, his wife's chargrilled body.  We see no glimpse of it at all in Journey Home, possibly due to time constraints or, more likely, because it made the scene in question a little too gruesome for the editors' tastes.  In Journey Home, it seems that Pheasant gets shot simply because he isn't bright enough to notice the human with a gun standing a mere few metres from him, although in the original series the circumstances leading up to his death were a bit more complicated - Pheasant couldn't see the farmer because his eyes were too welled up with tears.

35.13 -  Reactions to that fateful gunshot are restricted to shots of the startled rooks taking flight from the trees and Badger turning and saying, "Oh, no!"  We then immediately cut to a shot of dusk descending over the copse (no such shot occurs in the TV series - this is actually a reverse shot of dawn ascending), and fade out.

35.16 - We fade back in, and the animals are on the move once again, with Adder at their heels.  As Fox explains:

"We left at sunrise.  We knew we'd never see the Pheasants again.  Even Adder, who'd found her way back from the farm.  We had to stay clear of the humans, but only Toad knew which way to go."

This was a slight departure from the events of the original series, in which Adder did not make it back to the other animals alone, but rather was retrieved by Owl, who volunteered to go back after Pheasant's failed attempt.  The two animals did not set out immediately, however, but instead lingered around the barn for much of the night, enjoying a borderline mutinous discussion over the crumpled body of a deceased rat.  Turns out, Owl is still resentful that Fox was chosen as leader over her, and it's also evident that Adder enjoys stroking Owl's ego for her own amusement.  This scene doesn't exactly go anywhere plot-wise, other than foreshadowing the animals' upcoming quandary as to who should assume leadership when Fox is separated from the rest of the group, so it's not too surprising that it was left out, although it does provide some nice (if rather dark) character-building for Owl and Adder.

Also removed from Journey Home are most of the scenes with the animals stuck at the copse.  This includes animals befriending the local rook population, who invite them to stay permanently (some of the party are tempted, but Toad argues that there wouldn't be enough food to sustain them during the winter months), and Baby Rabbit's near-fatal encounter with a snare.

35.59 - Adder's bizarre moment of fourth wall-breaking is retained in Journey Home, as the animals approach the river and Toad assures them that it will be an easy cross.  Adder remarks that "Toad's always so cheerful, isn't he?", with her gaze clearly directed at the viewer.  In the original, Adder comments that "Toad is such an optimist, isn't he?", and her disdain is a lot more evident than in Journey Home, where she comes off as making more of a general observation.

41.14 - Here we get one of the more seamless transitions from one episode into the next, helped immensely by the fact that Episodes 5 and 6 close and open in the exact same way, with Toad pointing toward the river and saying, "Wait, look."

Very little of Episode 6 makes it into Journey Home, other than Badger's rescue and Kestrel's efforts to keep tabs on an unconscious Fox as he is carried down the river on a piece if driftwood.  Gone is Mole's near-miss with the pike (which was pure filler anyhow) and the animals questioning who should take over as leader if Fox does not return.

43.25 - Kestrel explains to Badger how she followed Fox diligently before finally losing all trace of him.  The animals are devastated, but Badger convinces them that the journey must continue in his absence.

Not included in Journey Home are some of the subsequent difficulties encountered when the animals attempt to continue their journey, including Toad's loss of direction and Mrs. Field-Mouse's unplanned pregnancy.

Friday, 22 April 2016

The Animals of Farthing Wood Do America: Part 2

Happy Earth Day, everyone!  To celebrate, let's go global and take a closer look at Journey Home, the direct-to-video US release of Europe's much-beloved The Animals of Farthing Wood.

Note that whenever I refer to the "original" I am, of course, referring to the UK version of the series, which was used as the basis for Journey Home.  On occasion I might use the German version (the only other version that I have to hand) as an additional point of reference.

00.46 - Journey Home opens in the exact same manner as the TV series, with a few establishing shots of Farthing Wood looking pretty and peaceful, only for a barrage of bulldozers and chainsaws to appear and swiftly put a stop to that.  The first obvious difference is that Journey Home, being a feature film, places its opening titles here:

Curiously, the onscreen titles read "The Animals of Farthing Wood", instead of the title it was officially released under, Journey Home: The Animals of Farthing Wood, making me wonder if the latter was the result of a last minute modification.

00.51 - Journey Home opens with this piece of voice-over narration from Fox (now voiced by Ralph Macchio):

"Farthing Wood had been our home ever since the first stream flowed through the forest and the trees grew tall to protect us.  But then the humans came.  And everything changed."

In the original TV series, the very first character we meet is Toad, who is returning to Farthing Wood after his long journey from White Deer Park, only to be buried underneath a pile of rubble (in a particularly macabre touch, a "tombstone" even lands at the top of the pile).  Journey Home skips over him for now and doesn't establish Toad's existence until the animals' meeting is already underway.

01.18 - Journey Home forgoes a number of basic character introductions, meaning that characters do have a tendency to keep popping up out of nowhere during the opening scene (which is actually a mishmash of moments from a number of separate scenes).  Badger and Weasel swap observations upon the situation, Owl tallies up the amount of recent damage, then suddenly we cut to Fox speaking and see that Mrs. Rabbit and Mr. Hedgehog are also hanging around nearby.  Missing here is quite a lot of connective tissue, including a scene in which Kestrel informs Badger, Weasel and Owl that the pond has been filled in, prompting Badger and Weasel to head over to the wood's last remaining water source (a muddy trickle), where Mrs. Rabbit and Mr. Hedgehog are drinking.  Fox (initially shown to be quite a threatening figure to the smaller creatures) then wanders over and suggests to Badger that the situation is dire enough for them to consider holding an assembly.  Journey Home, on the other hand, strives to create the illusion that these characters were all together in the same place from the beginning.

02.37 - In Journey Home, when Mrs. Rabbit suggests that someone at the meeting might come up with a solution, Weasel claps her hands and chants, "Clever Fox!  Clever Fox!", apparently in agreement that it's a fantastic idea.  In the original UK version, however, Weasel was actually saying "Clever clogs!  Clever clogs!" (British slang indicating that someone is being a pretentious know-it-all), in mockery of Mrs. Rabbit.  Presumably, the change was implemented because the term "clever clogs" wouldn't have as much meaning to a US audience.  A minor adjustment, although it does completely change the essence of what Weasel is saying.

Omitted from Journey Home is the portion of the scene in which Fox quite brazenly unloads all responsibility for organising the meeting that he himself suggested onto Badger.  Fox really was a wily bastard in the very beginning.

Journey Home also leaves out a number of scenes in which Badger and Weasel are seen preparing for meeting.  All that survives of this is a brief moment with Badger instructing Weasel to make herself useful by informing the Voles.

03.02 - From that, Journey Home cuts directly to a scene showing the animals on their way to the meeting, with Fox's voice-over narration filling in a few more details:

"And that's how it started.  Every animal in Farthing Wood came to the assembly.  Rabbits, Squirrels, Voles and Field-Mice.  Even Owl was there."

Skipped over is Owl's initial refusal to go underground, using a hilarious mixture of wordplay and pseudo-Biblical speak ("He who dwells in the soil, himself becomes soiled!  He who dwells in the light shall find enlightenment!").

Also noteworthy is that Journey Home goes to careful lengths to removal all scenes with/references to the Newts, so as to avoid any continuity errors when their departure arc is skipped.  Gone is the moment in which the Newts are seen entering Badger's sett, and Badger telling the Squirrels to follow them.

03.24 - Upon arriving at Badger's sett, Mr. Pheasant states that he hopes that he and his wife aren't late, at which point we cut to a completely different shot of him musing that, "The wife and I don't venture out of the wood very often.  Always the danger of being shot at."  This part was actually taken from much later on in meeting, when Fox asks the birds if they know of any other suitable habitats beyond the wood (you can see that the background behind the Pheasants has changed, as they were underground in Badger's sett at the time).  Putting it here implies that Badger's sett actually isn't in Farthing Wood, which of course isn't true at all.

In the original, Mr. Pheasant's statement was also intersected by sudden, startling imagery of a shotgun being loaded and fired, but Journey Home replaces this with a considerably more benign image of Fox overlooking the arriving animals.

03.53 -  Finally, Toad makes his first appearance in Journey Home.  There's a scene with him hopping past a signpost with a squirrel on it.  Toad can be heard saying, "I'm coming! I'm coming!" but his lips don't actually move.  Just to be clear, the exact same error occurs in the original version too; it isn't a result of dodgy editing in Journey Home.  The German version likewise contains this error, so it was blatantly a screw-up at the animation level.

06.18 - Some of Fox's dialogue during the meeting has been rewritten.  In Journey Home:

Fox: In fact, even a human can see that...

Owl: If we don't find a new watering hole within the next few days...

Fox: Then we're gonna have to kiss our fur and our feathers goodbye, and I think you all know what I mean.

And here's what Fox said in the original:

Fox: In fact, it should be obvious to all of you here that...

 Owl: If we don't find a new watering hole within the next few days...

Fox: Then we're going to be in the very worst kind of distress, if you know what I mean.

Fox's "even a human can see that" line is a bit of a strange alteration, since it implies that Fox has rather a low opinion of human intelligence/perception, something which has absolutely no basis in the original.

07.28 - Badger asks Fox what he thinks of Toad's suggestion that the animals vacate to White Deer Park, to which Fox responds, "I don't think we have a choice."

In the original UK version, Fox's response was, "Does it look like we have any alternative?"  A minor change, although one that neatly illustrates the difference between Macchio and Farley's respective takes on the character.  Macchio's delivery is entirely straight, whereas Farley's drips with the kind of heavy sarcasm with which he loved to imbue the character.

07.35 - And now we move onto our very first musical number, "There's A World Out There".  Some examples of the lyrics therein:

We're going!  We're going! We're going to be going!
It's clear that we can do no longer stay!
The humans' machinery is messing up our greenery,
And soon we will be going away!

There's a world out there just waiting for us,
There's a world we will explore!
There's a world out there for the adventurous,
And it can't be any stranger
Than our present danger!

Our depart is waiting, it's time for celebrating,
We're going to be going away!
I hear it's peaceful and sunny,
A perfect place for bunnies,
Where all they do is play all day!

Accompanying this sequence is footage of the animals locking paws and dancing (which comes from the closest thing that the series itself did to a musical number, when a number of animals, overjoyed at the prospect of finding a new home, started leaping around and chanting some silly improvised tune about going to White Deer Park) but also features a montage of clips taken from all over the series.  Ostensibly, they're all very cheerful scenes, so as to match up with the song's super-buoyant tone, although anyone who's familiar with the original series and knows the correct context for many of them might find this montage a tad awkward.  Here are some examples of what's included:

  • Mr. Hare using a twig to imitate a violinist (in mockery of Mr. Pheasant's display of sorrow upon losing Mrs. Pheasant).
  • Baby Rabbit blowing on some dandelion seeds (immediately before getting his neck caught in a snare).
  • One of the Squirrels about to take a bite out of an apple (which has been doused with pesticides). 

The reason why I consider the addition of a few musical numbers in Journey Home to be misguided is because songs this ridiculously bouncy and upbeat simply don't mesh with the overall tone of the series, which was generally quite sombre.  Glancing through this selection of clips merely reminds me of just how much underlying darkness and danger was ever-present in the Farthing animals' world, even when things were looking momentarily rosy.  Journey Home as a whole doesn't completely shy away from this point either, making these musical sequences feel like total mood anomalies even in the context of their own film.

10.19 - Badger calls for the "re-introduction of the ancient woodland vow" (aka the Oath of Mutual Protection).  In Journey Home, he doesn't give the Oath any kind of context, nor refer to it as something that was remembered by his late father, although in fairness the original series was itself quite vague on this point.  If you want to know what Badger is talking about, then you'll have to pick up one of Colin Dann's books.

12.28 - The meeting scene fades out in the exact same way that the original episode ended, with Adder devouring a glowworm.

13.25 - The scene in which Badger convinces Mole not to stay behind has been left entirely intact, one of the very few scenes in the film which wasn't truncated in some way.

15.30 - Journey Home skips over most of the scenes with the animals traveling across the building site/housing estate.  These include Adder questioning if Toad can really be trusted to lead the animals to White Deer Park and assuring him that she herself is merely "along for the ride", the Newts crying out that their baby is dying of dehydration and Fox asking Owl to find them a nearby source of water.  In the series, Owl purposely leads the animals to the swimming pool, whereas in Journey Home, they just appear to have stumbled upon it by happenstance.

Naturally, Journey Home forgoes all scenes of the Newts limping into the pool and finding a new lease of life in there.

16.17 - The newly-dubbed dialogue using Adder and Weasel's American voices is more-or-less identical to what was said the original.  The only notable differences are Weasel observing that Adder looks thirsty and Adder calling Weasel a "stinker" rather than a "sharper".

17.45 - As the animals attract unwelcome attention and lights go on in the house, we hear the sounds of a dog barking.  The barking dog was entirely Journey's Home's addition, and does not feature in the original series.

18.22 - It's here that Journey Home makes its single slip-up with regards to keeping the Newts out of the picture.  They can be seen vacating the pool along with Toad.

18.41 - The dialogue between Fox and Adder as he attempts to remove her from the pool with a garden cane has been truncated/altered.  In Journey Home:

Adder: Psst, still here, Foxy.

Fox: No foolin'. (grabs garden cane)

In the original, Adder's full line was, "Psst, still here, Foxy.  Submerged, but not sunk."  Farely's Fox is a fair bit ruder than Macchio's and just tells Adder to shut up at this point.

The part with Fox using the garden cane to hoist Adder out of the water has likewise been truncated so that the two characters come off as less jerky to one another.  Missing from Journey Home is Adder sarcastically asking if Fox expects her to eat cane, Fox addressing Adder as "you silly, slithering..." and Adder sullenly demanding an apology.  In Journey Home they seem more co-operative, although Adder still appears visibly sullen before finally latching onto the cane, which in Journey Home isn't given any context.

American Adder is also a lot noisier than her British and German counterparts, both in the chomping noises she makes when she bites onto the cane, and her screaming while being flung.

19.58 - As the animals flee the garden, Owl's reference to Chinese philosopher Confucius has, I'm pleased to report, been left entirely intact:

"So, Fox's cunning saved the day.  Still, as Confucius say, let's see what tomorrow brings."

I have to question how the heck Owl even knows who Confucius is, but whatever, I find it strangely hilarious that she does.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

The Animals of Farthing Wood Do America: Part 1

Back in the early 00s, when I was really starting to get into this whole internet thing, I visited a number of Animals of Farthing Wood fansites to see if they could answer any of the lingering questions that I still had about the series.  I ended up taking away three points of genuine interest:

1) The overwhelming majority of people had apparently shared my dislike for Series 3.  That's good to hear.

2) Nobody really knew for sure why the fifth book in Colin Dann's original series, The Siege of White Deer Park, had been skipped over in the animated adaptation.  Some speculate that the content was deemed too dark and violent (particularly with Series 3 looking to lighten the general tone by a notch), others suspect that they simply weren't able to merge books 5, 6 and 7 into a singular and cohesive story as they did with books 2, 3 and 4 - so they left out Siege altogether and padded things out with a subplot about Weasel, Measly and their evil hell-spawn leaving the park and running riot around the English countryside.  Um, yay?

3) Did you know - and this was the point which really captivated me - that Series 1 of The Animals of Farthing Wood was released in the US as a direct-to-video movie called Journey Home, having been edited down significantly to feature length and dubbed over with an all-new, all-American voice cast?  This appeared to have triggered a lot of automatic dislike amongst the online Farthing Wood community, although I suspected that almost none of them had actually seen the film in question, because they weren't really saying anything about it other than the most entirely basic of facts: direct-to-video, feature length, American voice cast - that's all.  The film itself was a complete mystery.

The American voice cast seemed to be the point that most people were getting hung up about in particular, largely on the basis that the story takes place in England (the occasional vehicle seen driving on the right notwithstanding), and the British voice cast would have been speaking the same damned language anyway, so why did the American version feel obliged to scrub everything clean and start anew over something as trivial as accents?  A lot of the negativity toward Journey Home seemed to be driven by a knee-jerk "grrr, those Americans, why do they always have to impose their culture upon everything?" kind of reaction, and while I do understand people objecting on those grounds, I can't help but feel that getting too hung up about that point alone is kind of petty within itself.  Sure, The Animals of Farthing Wood was adapted from a British novel, but it was co-produced with the input of multiple European countries, and as such was always intended for use and readjustment by a variety of different markets.  A change of accents is certainly a lot less necessary than a change of language, but at the same time, if the US version saw the addition of some local voice talent as useful to their own localisation process, then I'm not inclined to automatically begrudge them for it.  So long as the US voice cast actually does a good job of it, it's certainly not the worst change that they could have made.

No, personally I was always a lot more curious as to how a series like The Animals of Farthing Wood could be edited into a singular feature in the first place.  Cutting a thirteen-part TV series down into a feature length film is no small task, and a heck of a lot more complicated than simply selecting out 90-odd minutes worth of the most significant plot details. The narrative flow and pacing demands of a multi-part TV serial tend to be very different to those of a self-contained feature film, and even you are able to keep the basic story line intact in your edit, it's still going to lack cogency if the individual scenes aren't flowing convincingly into one another.  The BBC Video VHS releases in the UK were themselves very heavily edited, of course, but even then they weren't doing anything quite so ambitious as attempting to condense the entire story into a single sitting.  That's why I had this sneaking suspicion that the US version wouldn't hold up particularly well, but I kept it at the back of my mind for a long time nonetheless and remained curious to see it.

Last year, I finally managed to get hold of a VHS copy of this much-fabled US release and as such am able to bring you a full breakdown of what was cut, what remains and how Journey Home differs in general from the original TV series.  In light of all of my above statements, I wish to make it clear that I always approached this film with an open mind and out of genuine curiosity, not because I'd already decided that I hated it on mere principle and was looking for an easy target to tear apart.

I will say, however, that the cover art doesn't exactly make the best first impression:


Well, it's an oddly garish cover, with everybody but Badger looking seriously off-model (particularly Mrs. Rabbit, whose body shape seems way, way too anthropomorphic).  Also, are those two Weasels I see there, is one of them just an exceedingly awry-looking Vole?   For my money, this cover also contains probably the happiest and most non-threatening depiction of Adder I've seen in any kind of official artwork.

Onto the specifics.  Journey Home: The Animals of Farthing Wood was produced in 1996 and released in the US by BBC Video/CBS Fox Video in 1997.  The cover claims that it has a running time of approximately 120 minutes, but it's actually considerably shorter than that (around 80 minutes).  Below is an overview of the more significant changes:

The Voices:

Actually, despite what you may have heard about Journey Home, its voice cast is neither all-new or all-American - the majority of characters do in fact keep their original English voices, with Fox, Weasel and Adder being the only really notable exceptions.  Ralph Macchio (aka Daniel LaRusso from The Karate Kid films) has replaced Rupert Farley as the voice of Fox, and I suspect that this was motivated largely by a desire to wedge in some kind of exploitable name recognition from a marketing perspective.  Journey Home also uses Fox as a first-person narrator in order to smooth over a few of the narrative gaps, another factor likewise necessitating a change of voice-over.  In my opinion,  Macchio makes for a decent enough Fox, although he doesn't really bring the same kind of texture to the role as did Rupert Farley - he's fine as Fox the nice, dependable leader, but Farley also gave Fox a drier, more sarcastic side which doesn't transfer over into Journey Home.

Weasel, meanwhile, has been given this exaggerated Brooklyn accent (she's loud and shrill, but then I suppose that Sally Grace's Weasel had a bit of that too) and as for Adder, she's now a Southern belle, a pretty odd match-up which takes some getting used to.  Southern belle Adder sounds a lot less sharp, less threatening and all-round less reptilian than her British counterpart, which did initially make me think that the new voice was entirely ill-suited to her, although she retains her snake-like hiss, and the character does come across as sufficiently icy in the right places.

For the most part, the newly-dubbed dialogue is more-or-less faithful to the original script, with most tweaks and changes being fairly minor.  The dubbing itself isn't always entirely seamless though - there are multiple places where the dialogue doesn't quite match with the mouth movements of the characters.

The Songs:

And this is the part that I was totally unprepared for.  A (largely misguided) attempt has been made to turn Journey Home into a musical of sorts, with three songs plastered on in various places throughout the story.  One of these, "There's A World Out There", is lifted, more-or-less, from "We're Going Away" a diegetic song performed by the animals in the very first episode - it was rather a vapid song in its original form, to be perfectly honest, but it was entirely convincing as the kind of tuneless number that could be made up by multiple parties on the fly.  The songs in Journey Home are all real teeth-gritters and appear to have been added in partly to make the tone more buoyant and obviously kid-friendly, but also because they offer a a good excuse for a montage, which is a device really favoured by this film for getting through a lot of material in hurry.  The least irksome of the three songs, a melancholic number entitled "Follow Your Heart", is put to the best use in that regard, in conveying that a fairly significant amount of time passes when Fox gets separated from the others and has to travel on his own.

Journey Home uses the same instrumental music as the TV series.

The Editing:

I'll be going to into much more specific detail about the editing in Part 2, but it is, as I suspected, a (somewhat inevitable) mishmash which disguises its TV origins rather weakly.  Even if you came to this film with no prior knowledge of The Animals of Farthing Wood, I think that you'd very quickly cotton on to the fact that it was pieced together from parts of a TV series, as there are numerous fade-outs that make it all-too obvious where each individual episode would have ended.  Scenes have obviously been truncated and awkwardly stitched together, and we don't really dwell on the individual characters for long enough to pick up on any kind of substantial development from the overwhelming majority of them (particularly Whistler, who joins the group in a hurry and then has every useful purpose that he served within the series taken out).  Overall, the structure and flow of Journey Home feels distinctively like that of an abridged TV series as opposed to a legitimate feature film.

It should go without saying that just about every occurrence represented in Journey Home went on for at least a little longer in the original series.  The following events from the TV series, however, do NOT make it into Journey Home in any way:

  • The animals having to cross a road after leaving the housing estate.
  • The Newts' decision to remain at the marshland and their implied deaths in the fire.
  • The confrontation between Fox and Bruno as the animals flee the farm.
  • Owl going to back to the farm to collect Adder after Pheasant's failed attempt.
  • The animals' interactions with the rooks at the copse.
  • Baby Rabbit getting caught in a snare and being freed by Owl and Mole.
  • The animals debating who should take over as leader after Fox's disappearance.
  • Mole's near-miss with the pike while playing in the river with Toad.
  • Toad temporarily forgetting the way to White Deer Park and leading the animals in circles.
  • Mrs. Field-Mouse giving birth to a litter of babies (the infamous Butcher Bird attack still happens, but is implied instead to have involved an adult mouse - all mention of the babies has been carefully edited out of it).
  • Fox's encounter with Tom the supermarket cat.
  • Vixen's discussion with the mother thrush about the pros and cons of settling down with a family.
  • Fox receiving directions upon where to find the Farthing Wood animals from the Butcher Bird.
  • Toad being caught by the carp at the quarry and rescued by Whistler.
  • The death of Baby Rabbit.
  • The animals having to cross farmland in which pesticides are being used. (The only aspects of Episode 11, "The Deathly Calm", which survive at all, in fact, are a sequence in which Fox scavenges from a dustbin and is chased by a pair of bulldogs, and a brief glimpse of one of the Squirrels pulling an apple from a tree branch.)
  • The animals getting separated into several different splinter groups after escaping from the church and slowly reuniting.
  • The animals reflecting upon how the Oath has permanently changed them, even with their journey now coming to an end.

Other than the omission of a significant amount of material, the biggest narrative change made in Journey Home is a slight reordering of events - here, the motorway crossing occurs AFTER the escapade at the church (which does cause the Hedgehogs to a temporary disappearing act).  For all of my criticisms, however, I'm actually rather impressed at how much care was evidently given to maintaining continuity within the story.  While most of the scenes at the military training ground were omitted, for example, the specific scene in which Pheasant's tail feathers are burned by an explosive is still included, thus accounting for his more frazzled look for the remainder of his screen time.  The Newts don't receive their exit arc, but, aside from one very minor slip-up, the film manages to avoid ever really bringing them into the picture in the first place.  The whole drama with the Mice and Voles wishing to stay behind is seriously rushed here (it's clear that Journey Home really wanted to avoid all instances of infanticide), yet there was an obligation to include it nonetheless, as Fox and Vixen later deduce that the Farthing animals have split into two groups whilst trying to track them, prompting them to continue the search separately.  It would have been extremely easy to overlook ostensibly minor details such as this, so kudos for making the effort on that front.

And that's my basic overview of Journey Home, the much-scoffed at but, I suspect, seldom-seem US VHS release of The Animals of Farthing Wood.  It's certainly no substitute for watching the TV series proper, but if you're willing to overlook the addition of one or two rather ghastly musical numbers then all told it's not a bad attempt at what must have been a very cumbersome and daunting task for the editors.  In the end it's probably best recommended as a curiosity piece for Farthing Wood fans with an interest in how the series was represented overseas.

Next up: Part 2, in which I'll be taking a closer look at Journey Home and bringing you a more detailed look at the various edits and changes that were made therein.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Terwilliger Tales: Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming (or: How Sky 1's Fear of The A-Word Rendered a Simpsons Episode Incomprehensible For Years)

 "How naive of me to think a mere atom bomb could fell the chattering cyclops!"

Back in 1990, UK satellite channel Sky 1 (the flagship channel of Sky Television, which was shortly to merge with British Satellite Broadcasting to form BSkyB) acquired the broadcast rights to this offbeat little animated series called The Simpsons that was making serious waves in the US (despite the handicap of being a cartoon, which, as general consensus had long dictated, meant that it had absolutely no business being on prime time or cherished by an adult audience). By 1991, The Simpsons had emerged in the UK as this super-hip cartoon that everyone loved but that nobody that I knew actually seemed to have seen.  Oh sure, we'd all gone out and bough the "Do The Bartman" single, watched the music video on Top of the Pops and a few of us had even played that horrendous Bart Vs. The Space Mutants video game.  But nobody had actually seen the series itself, because Sky 1 had exclusive broadcasting rights to the show back then, and only a very tiny minority of children in my class had satellite television (to have Sky typically indicated that your parents were either loaded or just really sports-obsessed).  A number of episodes were released on VHS, which is how I finally got to experience the show first-hand, but for much of my childhood The Simpsons was wrapped up in mystique, a show which had accumulated so much positive word of mouth, but which only the truly privileged had unbridled access to.  The Simpsons finally made its UK terrestrial television debut on BBC One on 23rd November 1996, with the broadcast of "There's No Disgrace Like Home."  It later moved to BBC2, where it ran for several years before moving to Channel 4 in 2002.

Here's what all of us who grew up envying the few kids in our class who had Sky likely didn't appreciate - Sky 1's treatment of The Simpsons was absolute garbage.  If we'd have known just how terrible it was then maybe we'd have been quite happy to wait a few years to see the episodes in their entirety on BBC2.  Because Sky 1 took out their editing scissors and applied them to this show with irritating frequency.

See, my parents had actually spent the first half of the 90s debating whether or not to get Sky.  My dad (who's really sports-obsessed) was very much in favour, only my mum was resistant, thinking that satellite dishes were an absolute eyesore.  Finally, in late 1996 she relented, and we wound up getting a dish installed at round about the same time that the BBC started to air The Simpsons.  So I got to follow two different strands of the series at once - the earlier stuff on the BBC and the newer stuff on Sky 1.  It wasn't until BBC2 got round to airing some of the seasons that I was already well familiar with from Sky that I realised just how heavily (and poorly) edited the latter's broadcasts of numerous episodes actually were.  I can only assume that Sky had stricter pre-watershed rules than the BBC, because they were constantly cutting out material which the Beeb never seemed to have any qualms about playing (at an even earlier timeslot than Sky at that) when their turn came around.  Language was a major factor, with Sky 1 typically removing any instances of characters saying "crap", "ass" or "bastard", although they weren't 100% consistent on that point.  Violence was another - Itchy and Scratchy cartoons were frequently truncated or in some instances omitted altogether.  And then there were things which just seemed to have been pulled entirely at random, for no discernible reason whatsoever.  Perhaps the most notorious example of Sky 1's downright bizarre editing of The Simpsons was in a broadcast of the episode "Rosebud" that aired soon after the death of Princess Diana in 1997, in which Mr. Burns' use of the word "paparazzi" was blanked out - a questionable move which merely made it look as if Mr. Burns was saying something really obscene (that gag in "Duffless" in which Barney mistakes a pile of old rags for Princess Diana, though?  They left that totally intact at around the same time).

Now, for the most part these edits were quite small and didn't really detract from one's enjoyment of the episode as a whole (even if they did have the effect of making individual scenes seem abrupt, confusing or incomplete).  But if there's one episode that I'd say suffered pretty extensively in the hands of Sky 1, in that so much was cut out that the story and writing lost a huge chunk of their verve, rendering it a declawed and incoherent shadow of its true self, it's episode 3F08, or "Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming" of Season 7.  Before we proceed, here are a couple of basic facts I should disclose about myself:

1) Sideshow Bob is my favourite fictional character, period.  I think he's brilliant.

2) "Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming" is my all-time second favourite episode of The Simpsons ("Brother From Another Series" being my absolute favourite - gotta love that line about the Cappadocians).  For a long time, however, it was easily my least favourite of the original six Sideshow Bob episodes.  Bob's input was always enough to elevate it toward the top of the overall Simpsons pile regardless, but something had always felt distinctly "off" about this one.  There were numerous awkward cuts and fade-outs where it seemed like an actual punchline should have been, several scenes and moments felt totally incoherent (notably the ending scene); the whole thing just lacked cogency.  When "Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming" aired upon BBC2 and I finally got to see an uncut version, I realised that that thick layer of awkwardness I had prior associated with the episode had simply been imposed on it by Sky - out of their hands, it was fantastic.  Bob himself is on top form throughout - pretty much every line of dialogue from him is golden, and Kelsey Grammer's delivery is absolutely flawless.

How do you go about transforming one of the wittiest episodes of a highly acclaimed series into a confusing and all-too frequently humourless mess?  That's precisely what I intend to explore in this particular article.  I recently dug out my old VHS recording of a Sky 1 broadcast of "Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming" from 1997, and am delighted to bring you a detailed analysis of exactly what was cut and how this affected the overall mood and flow of the episode.  Note that for my comparison I will be using the version of the episode that appears upon The Simpsons Season 7 DVD release, not the version that was broadcast on BBC2, so I cannot say with absolute certainty that the BBC2 version was 100% uncut.

Something else I'd like to stress before I begin is that I very seldom watch The Simpsons on Sky 1 these days (unlike my parents, I did not grow up to be a Sky subscriber), so I've no idea what their treatment of the series is like today, or if they're even still using this particular edit of "Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming".  This is simply the version that I was familiar with for many years, and hopefully this analysis will resonate with anyone who followed the series on Sky 1 back in the late 90s.

Anyhow, this is the episode in which Bob gets hold of a nuclear weapon and threatens to detonate it if Springfield doesn't give up on its TV-watching habits.  As with many of Bob's schemes, there are noble intentions nestled at the heart of it - Bob simply wants to revive the lost art of conversation (and scrimshaw) - but his methods err on the side of extremity.  The title and basic plot of the episode are a shout-out to Robert Aldrich's underrated 1977 thriller Twilight's Last Gleaming, in which a military prison escapee (played by Burt Lancaster) seizes control of a nuclear missile silo and threatens to hit the launch button if the President does not go public with the contents of a top-secret document.  There are also references to a variety of classic nuclear war films, including Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe and Lyndon B. Johnson's infamous "Daisy" political advertisement, making it a must-see for anyone who shares my morbid fascination with that type of thing.

The episode opens with Bob in minimum security prison (kudos to the show for actually remembering that that's where he was sent at the end of "Sideshow Bob Roberts" - it's the kind of direct continuity one couldn't expect to see in any of the more recent episodes), where he is becoming increasingly troubled by the mind-rotting capabilities of the television set - somewhat ironically, as his fellow inmates point out, given that Bob himself is a former television celebrity, but it seems that Bob is eager to put that portion of his life behind him, thinking that he helped to destroy "more young minds than syphilis and pinball combined" (wonderful line, glorious reading by Kelsey).  While working at an Air Force base that is being prepared for an upcoming air show, Bob masterminds a scheme to rid Springfield of the corrupting influence of television once and for all.

02.39 - Dialogue Edit: "Condom Wrappers"

Actually, for all my griping, the first edit doesn't occur until about two and a half minutes into the episode.  Gone from the Sky 1 version is a line in which Bob explicitly identifies what those colourful confetti-like objects that he's been raking up at the Air Force base are:

Bob: "There, that's the last condom wrapper."

This was presumably cut because such an explicit reference to condoms would have been deemed inappropriate for Sky 1's pre-watershed broadcasting rules. Oh, but a character crying, "Porno! Porno! PORNO!" later on in the episode?  Perfectly acceptable apparently.

Side note: notice how Bob wields a rake in this particular scene and manages to avoid stepping on it or any of that nonsense?  Contrary to popular belief, they didn't decide to make that whole rake thing into a multi-episode running gag until much later on the series.

03.56 - Scene Truncation: "Haul ass to Lollapalooza" 

The above condom reference removal is a fairly typical kind of Sky 1 Simpsons edit - it's obvious that the scene in question doesn't flow properly, and that's certainly annoying, but it doesn't really do much to hurt the episode as a whole.  The next edit, however, is far more fatal, and occurs when Bob, back at the minimum security prison, overhears snippets from a tacky sitcom that his cellmate is watching, and is deeply distressed by its content.

TV: Friend?  You mean you two aren't knocking boots? (audience laughter) Ever do the backseat mambo, Craigy?

Bob: (gasps) I know that voice...TV's bottomless chum bucket has claimed Vanessa Redgrave!

Aaaand cue the awkward fade-out.

The Sky 1 version fades out immediately after Bob's rueful observation about Vanessa Redgrave, and good grief, does it make the scene in question feel strange, unsettling and just plain incomplete.

Here's how the rest of the scene plays out in the uncut version:

TV: Now I'm gonna haul ass to Lollapalooza!  YEEHAW!!! (sounds of motorbike revving)

Bob: (covering ears with pillow) Farewell, dear Nessa...

TV: (20th Century Fox theme plays)

Sky 1 viewers missed out on some hilarious reaction shots from Bob, notably his look of pure anguish at Nessa's mere mention of Lollapalooza, and of bitter world-weariness upon hearing the 20th Century Fox theme - a self-depreciating swipe at the network upon which The Simpsons originally airs, and also an indirect call-back to Bob's earlier skirmish with fellow inmate Rupert Murdoch.

Not only did Sky 1 shear off the punchline of this scene (all because Nessa used the word "ass", I'm assuming), this edit will have direct repercussions much later on in the episode, as it renders the ending scene totally incomprehensible, but we'll get to that in due course.

12.08 - Visual Edit: "Porno! Porno! PORNO!" 

Yeah, so we've already established that you can get away with saying "porno" as loudly and as frequently as you want pre-watershed...just so long as you don't get too close to the offending material.  Missing from the Sky 1 is edit is a brief close-up shot of the pornographic magazines that Colonel Hapablap throws onto the table in the underground, Dr. Strangelove-style War Room.

The Sky 1 edit does, however, retain the moment with Krusty examining the we get a decent enough glimpse of them anyway.  I can still make out the words "Granny Fanny" down there.

As with Bob's condom line, this is a minor edit which doesn't leave anything more than a very tiny dent within the episode itself.  It's once we reach the climax that the edits start coming thick and fast, and it becomes evident that there is something very, deeply wrong with this broadcast.

16.55 - Dialogue Edit: "A very special type of genius"

When Bart and Lisa come face-to-face with Bob inside the Duff blimp, a sizable portion of dialogue was taken out of the resulting confrontation between Bob and Bart.  Bolding indicates what was cut:

Bart: So Krusty double-crossed you...but your basic plan was pure genius.  Where do you get your ideas?

Bob: Oh, please! (pulls flick-knife from jumpsuit) Let's not embarrass us both with that hoary old stall-the-villain-with-flattery scheme.

(As Bob corners Bart, Lisa is seen typing away on a computer keyboard.)

Bart: I- I should've known you were too smart to fall for that...

Bob: Really? What type of smart? Book smart? Because there are a lot of people who are book smart. But it takes a very special type of genius to -

The dialogue itself seems perfectly harmless, so I'm guessing that what the Sky 1 censors took issue with here is Bob threatening Bart with a flick-knife throughout their exchange.  Bob continues to hold Bart at knife point for much of the climax and Sky 1 certainly couldn't have taken it out of the episode altogether, but I suspect that it's this particular close-up of the knife being pointed in Bart's direction that they really wanted gone:

It does mean that there's a rather awkward transition in the Sky 1 version, in which Bob is suddenly seen holding a knife which he didn't have about a second ago.

17.55 - Dialogue Edit: "Ass on a Platter"

When Bob makes off in the Wright Brothers' plane:

Colonel Hapablap: "Hell, not the Wright Brothers' plane!  The Smithsonian's gonna have my ass on a platter!"

Once again, we can't say "ass" on this channel pre-watershed.  It's another of the less harmful edits, although I am sorry that Sky 1 viewers were deprived of R. Lee Ermey's brilliant delivery of the line in question.

Side note: There's something about the way Marge screams as Bob flies overhead with Bart which seriously cracks me up.

18.28 - Scene removal: "Jet off to Raleigh-Durham"

Missing from the Sky 1 edit is an entire scene with Bob and Bart on the Wright Brothers' plane.

Bob: Ah, for the days when aviation was a gentleman's pursuit, back before every Joe Sweat-Sock could wedge himself behind a lunch tray and jet off to Raleigh-Durham.

Bart: (spluttering) Are you getting lots of bugs in your mouth too?

Bob: Yes. (starts spitting)

Your guess is as good as mine.  I'll speculate that Sky 1 was looking to further minimise the amount of screen-time given to that flick-knife.

20.55 - Scene Truncation: "Here we go again..."

We finally reach the end of the episode.  Bob's plan to wipe out Krusty via kamikaze tactics fails due to the Wright Brothers' plane not being built for that kind of thing, Bob is dragged away in handcuffs (no more minimum security for you) and Bart is reunited with the rest of the Simpsons clan.  The only question now is, what's the final punchline going to be?  Uh, well...

In the Sky 1 edit, Abe Simpson suddenly appears on a motorbike and says, "Hey everybody!", to which the family all sigh, with overblown resignation, "Here we go again!" (Marge sounding less enthused and being slightly out of sync with the others).
Aaaand fade out.

The fuck?

Seriously, now.  If the Sky 1 edit was the only version of this episode that you were familiar with, how could you even be expected to make sense of that ending?  Why does Abe Simpson suddenly show up on a motorbike?  What do the family even mean when they say, "Here we go again," as if Abe pulls this kind of thing often?  What does it have to do with ANYTHING that we've just seen?

The answer, of course, is that the ending, in its original form, was a call-back to the sitcom that Bob's cellmate was watching earlier on in the episode (the one allegedly starring Vanessa Redgrave).  In the full version of the episode, Abe, much like Nessa before him, announces that, "I'm gonna haul ass to Lollapalooza," which is what actually triggers the family's "Here we go again" declaration, as they know what's coming next (the family is, in effect, breaking the fourth wall here, something which totally isn't preserved in the Sky 1 edit). In the original cut, the episode doesn't fade out at this point - instead, it cuts directly to the 20th Century Fox logo, after which we get the end credits.  In a sense, it's Rupert Murdoch who gets the last word here (with Marge's notable lack of enthusiasm, which echoes her prior reaction to being at the air show, imparting the suggestion that Fox is a paradigm of much the same variety of empty, noisy entertainments).

So yes, it was a bit of a strange and atypical ending even in its original form.  But at least it actually made a degree of sense, as a parody of tacky sitcom endings and a further self-depreciating swipe at Fox, echoing an earlier gag while also tying in with Bob's overall anxieties about television being a chattering, brain cell-killing cyclops.  In the Sky 1 edit, this loses all meaning and looks, almost, as if it's being played entirely straight, with the family's glib "Here we go again" comment being exactly that - a glib, pseudo-punchline substituting for an actual ending.  I can only assume that the 20th Century Fox logo was pulled from their version because, short of that earlier reference, its placement might have seemed a bit confusing to Sky 1 viewers.  But it's not as if that ending gag was going to make a lick of sense regardless.

And that's Sky 1's edit of "Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming".  As is usually the case with any Sideshow Bob episode, I end up feeling incredibly sorry for Bob (methods aside, the bloke did only start out wanting to construct his model of Westminster Abbey in peace), and I feel doubly bad for him here because Sky 1 truncated so much of his material, to the extent that they completely excised one of his all-time greatest lines (the one about Joe Sweat-Sock and Raliegh-Durham), in addition to nullifying some of the more meta aspects of the episode.

Final note: even though I've compared the BBC's treatment of The Simpsons entirely favourably to Sky 1's throughout this article, they weren't above making a few rather irksome edits themselves - their broadcast of "Treehouse of Horror IV", for example, was missing the exchange between Devil-Flanders and Richard Nixon (the "But I'm not dead yet!  In fact, I just wrote an article for Redbook!" bit).  I don't care if Nixon actually was long dead by the time BBC2 aired the episode, that "Hey listen, I did a favour for you!" response was one of the funniest gags that The Simpsons ever came up with.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Aardman - "Visit London Zoo" (1990)

Advertisements made up the bulk of Aardman's bread and butter in the 1980s and into the 1990s - in fact, between Conversation Pieces in 1983 and Lip Sync in 1989, virtually all of the company's output consisted of TV ads and music videos (most famously for Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer"), with our favourite Aardman short, Babylon, being the anomaly in all of this.  Some of the adverts that they worked on, such as those for Scotch VHS (skeleton) and Lurpak (Douglas the trombonist), caught the public's imagination and are still regarded fondly as classics.  This one-off advert for London Zoo, which I found nestled among the ad breaks of a London Weekend Television broadcast of Disney's Dumbo from 1990, isn't particularly well-remembered, and certainly that's collective memory's loss, because it's wonderful.

Actually, since I've never read of any specific reference to this advert in any Aardman-related literature, there's no way that I can say with 100% certainty that this even was one of theirs...but it looks so recognisably like an Aardman product that the only other possibility would be that it's the work of someone who blatantly saw Nick Park's Creature Comforts (1989) and was eager to replicate that visual style right down to the very last detail.  Not only does the Stinkpot Turtle have a characteristically very "Nick Park" mouth, but he also bears more than a passing resemblance to Frank the Tortoise, a character shortly set to feature in a series of advertisements for the electricity board (arguably Aardman's most well-known advertising campaign) inspired by the original Creature Comforts film.

The concept of this advertisement is fairly novel - a succession of exotic-looking animals hurl quirky-sounding insults at one another, the gag being that these supposed insults actually are the real names of the species in question (I can only assume that London Zoo had representatives of each in its collection at the time).  The chain begins with an audacious Dog Faced Newt who calls out to a Stinkpot Turtle, who evidently doesn't appreciate the moniker, and it goes on right through to a Springhaas (sounds like "Spring Arse", get it?), who, finally, offers up the sales pitch: "If you don't know your aardvark from your emu, visit London Zoo."  Each character is so appealing, and so charmingly designed that I honestly wish that we could have seen a lot more done with this bunch (further adverts and a spin-off television series certainly wouldn't have gone amiss).  As with many Aardman works, it's the attention given to minor/background details, such as the Fat Tailed Lemur's ice cream and the Two-Toed Sloth's sunglasses, which really pushes it into that extra level of beguilement.

Here is the cast of animals in question:

Dog Faced Newt
(Paramesotriton hongkongensis)

Stinkpot Turtle
 (Sternotherus odoratus)

Fat Tailed Lemur
 (Cheirogaleus medius)
Short-Necked Skink
(Trachylepis brevicollis)

One-Wattled Cassowary
 (Casuarius unappendiculatus)
Two-Toed Sloth
(Choloepus didactylus)

 Orange Rumped Agouti
 (Dasyprocta leporina)

(Pedetes capensis)

Darling though this advertisement was, it evidently didn't spring too many arses off sofas and into zoo grounds, as London Zoo was experiencing a financial crisis at the time, and by 1991 was on the brink of closure.  Arguably, this advert had the misfortune of coming out at a point where enthusiasm for the product in question was at an all-time low, which it could do little to remedy (in the end it took a formal announcement that the zoo would close for an outpouring of public support to begin and ultimately save it), and consequently wound up being lost in the cracks of Aardman's lengthy advertising resume.  Mind you, it's not as if interest in the product itself was ever crucial to the success of an Aardman advertising campaign (numerous people thought that Frank the Tortoise and friends were plugging British Gas, no matter how many times they said "electricity") so I'm not sure if that's much of an excuse.  Ah well, is it too late for us to give this thing a cult following now?  I know that you're all eager to have one of those Fat Tailed Lemurs in plush form to go atop your workstations.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Miracle Mile (1988) - "50 minutes and counting..."

First screened at the Toronto Film Festival in 1988 and given a US theatrical release in 1989, Steve De Jarnatt's cult apocalyptic flick Miracle Mile was one of the last entries into the canon of Cold War-era nuclear paranoia films, but the screenplay had been kicking about in Hollywood for at least a decade prior.  Nestled in this film's production history is a wonderful tale about the triumph of persistence and a hidden gem surviving many hard years in the wilderness before finally getting the break and recognition it so richly deserved.  De Jarnatt, then fresh from the American Film Institute, penned an early version of the script for Warner Bros with the intention of directing it himself, but was met with an ambivalent response.  Warner Brothers saw potential in the project, but envisioned it as a big budget production and were reluctant to entrust it in the hands of such a green director.  In the end they took the script but not De Jarnatt, and nary a peep was heard from the project for quite some time.  The script lay dormant with Warner Brothers for three years, after which De Jarnatt was able to buy it back and get to work on fine tuning it.  His efforts to shop it elsewhere around Hollywood didn't go anywhere, however, with studios being widely turned off by the script's unflinchingly bleak conclusion, which De Jarnatt was insistent on keeping.  Before salvation finally came in the form of funding from John Daly of Hemdale Films (apparently bolstered by actor Anthony Edward's personal enthusiasm for the getting the picture made), word has it that the script was even considered as the potential basis for the Twilight Zone's big screen outing (which eventually saw the light of day as Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983), but that ending once again proved to be a major sticking point.  De Jarnatt's unwillingness to swap it out for a more optimistic outcome ultimately lead to the abandonment of the idea and to the Twilight Zone feature pursuing a different (and decidedly ill-fated) direction altogether.

Actually, it's not hard to envision De Jarnatt's story as part of the Twilight Zone canon - it has the taut, nightmarish quality of the very best episodes of the classic Rod Serling series, wherein one can never be entirely certain of the reality of the situation in which the characters find themselves, and the exploration of the fragility of a civilisation gripped with an overwhelming sense of fear was a topic that similarly interested Serling when he wrote "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" and, more obviously, "The Shelter", which also dealt with the prospect of imminent nuclear attack.  Overall, Miracle Mile is a first-rate example of what I personally like to categorise as a "panic movie" - that is, a film dedicated primarily to the horrors and spectacle of a society coming apart at the seams in the face of impending catastrophe, as the codes and demands of civilised culture lose all meaning and humans are forced to fall back en masse upon their basic fight-or-flight impulses for protection (from each other, chiefly).  The film's opening sequence, which takes place at the La Brea Tar Pits in the titular Miracle Mile district of Los Angeles, gives us a brief run-down on the evolution of life on planet Earth, reminding us that, once humankind had arrived on the scene, it took "tens of thousands of years for civilisation as we know it to reach the modern era", and deftly foreshadowing the film's central concern that, given the right kind of stimuli, we might discover just how close in spirit we really are to our primordial ancestors who dined on woolly mammoth stew all those years ago.

Pessimistic though it may be, Miracle Mile is also an immensely quirky, at times even vaguely surreal film with darkly comic sensibilities, and for this reason it never approaches anywhere near the level of bleakness as, say, the BBC TV film Threads (1984), preferring always to keep the horror of the situation framed within the context of absurdity.  It follows Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) a thirty-year-old trombonist who happens to be lurking outside an all-night diner on Fairfax Avenue at just the right time (4:00 in the morning, to be precise) to answer a mysterious telephone call made to a nearby payphone.  The caller on the other end, who identifies as "Chip", is frantic, apparently having meant to get through to his father, and ends up divulging to Harry that he is calling from a missile silo in North Dakota, and that the world only has about seventy minutes left to go before it can expect to be flattened by nuclear warfare.  He asks Harry to pass on a message to his father, telling him that, "I'm sorry about that summer.  He'll know what I mean," one of several mysteries that goes unanswered throughout the course of the film. Suddenly, the sounds of gunfire are heard, and a different voice takes over the call, ordering Harry to forget everything he's just heard and to go back to sleep.

Harry, of course, can make good on neither command.  He's not really sure whether what he's just heard was a genuine warning or somebody's particularly deranged idea of a practical joke, and he's even more nonplussed as to what he's supposed to do with the information he's just received.  In the end, he can only stagger back inside the diner and attempt to shoulder the burden of responsibility with the motley assortment of patrons who have gathered there on this particular morning. Some are predictably incredulous, others are just about rattled enough by the prospect of impending nuclear explosion to be willing to give Harry the benefit of the doubt, and the first signs that the ensuing panic might, in itself, get particularly ugly come when diner cook Fred (Robert DoQui) leaps upon the counter and threatens Harry at gunpoint to be honest about everything that he knows.  Meanwhile, a mysterious businesswoman named Landa (Denise Crosby), who initially came into the diner to drink coffee while leafing through the Cliff Notes for Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, attempts to contact a few personal friends in Washington, only to discover that four out of five of them are presently relocating to the extreme Southern Hemisphere.  She suggests that they follow suit and set off immediately to reach an aircraft headed for Antarctica before the streets of LA become jammed with panicked motorists attempting to flee the US.  Fred, who appears to have had a shopping trolley filled with canned food ready to go in the event of such an emergency, offers use of the diner's delivery van, and so staff and patrons alike all pile in and go.  Following this ragtag group of individuals in their efforts to board a plane to Antarctica in just over an hour seems as if it would make for a perfectly engaging story within itself, only Harry decides that he cannot go with them and resolves to jump from the van as it goes over an on-ramp.  And that is the last we see of Landa, Fred and their motley band of would-be nuclear warfare survivors.  Alas, this is not their story.

I'm going to have to backtrack a bit at this point, because intertwined with all this apocalyptic madness is a parallel story regarding Harry's love life, which is what led to his being outside the diner at four in the morning in the first place.  He recently ran into Julie (Mare Winningham) at the La Brea Tar Pits, and is convinced that he is meant to spend the rest of his life with her, only their plans to meet up outside the diner at midnight were derailed by a highly inconvenient power cut (due to a pigeon setting fire to electric cables with a cigarette that Harry himself had failed to extinguish) causing Harry to sleep in and to show up only when Julie had long since given up hope and left.  Having learned from Landa that a heliport at 5900 Wilshire will be secured at 5:00 am for a rendezvous to the airport, Harry's objective now is to reach Julie, make amends and then make it safely to the heliport with her in time for departure.  It's an undeniable display of chivalry, although whether or not you see this as a genuine thread of sweetness in a picture that otherwise takes a decidedly cynical view of humanity under pressure will likely depend upon how convincing you find the chemistry between Edwards and Winningham.  Myself, I'll profess that I find the whole romantic angle to be by far the hokiest aspect of the film, feeling for the most part as if it's there purely to give Harry some form of motivation to keep moving from person to person, further spreading the seed of panic despite his best efforts and leading, all too frequently, to tragedy.  Even more contrived is a minor subplot involving Julie's grandparents, who allegedly haven't spoken for fifteen years (although, in another of the film's great unanswered mysteries, nobody can quite recall what caused them to fall out so bitterly in the first place) but who, in the face of nuclear annihilation, finally summon the will to renew their relationship, resolving to spend what little time they have devouring sandwiches in one another's company - their stoicism is certainly admirable, but the film's attempt at being momentarily heartwarming rings strangely hollow.  The most genuinely affecting moment is decidedly more morbid and involves Wilson (Mykelti Williamson), the driver of a stolen police car which has just crashed into a shopping mall, carrying the crumpled body of his sister, Charlotta (Kelly Jo Minter), up the first few steps of a malfunctioning escalator in bewildered desperation, as she manages to splutter out her final words: "Is this your blood or mine?"  Less grisly but almost as painful is when Harry, having returned to the payphone, manages to get through to Chip's father, only for the father to hang up before Harry can deliver Chip's message about being sorry for whatever it was that he did that summer.

Ultimately, Miracle Mile doesn't do tenderness half as splendidly as it does delirium and mordant cynicism, and its outlook upon the prospects for the human race, now that the chips are truly down, is probably most aptly summarised in Harry's response when asked by Julie if people will help one another to survive in the aftermath of nuclear explosion: "I think it's the insects' turn."  Or perhaps more apt still is the Australia-themed billboard sign that appears in the backdrop of several scenes, in one of the film's wittiest uses of mise-en-scène, in which a koala is shown shielding its gaze, as if in anticipation of the horrors set to unfold upon the streets before it, next to the most succinct caption imaginable.

The sustained sense of delirium is a crucial part of the film's appeal, not least because it perfectly encapsulates the frenzied, nightmarish quality of the central scenario, but also for the manner in which it taunts the viewer, at several points, into pondering if Harry's plight might indeed be nothing more than a literal nightmare he's experiencing while sleeping away the hours before his date with Julie.  Along with the odd bit of ostensible foreshadowing in the characters' dialogue (one of the patrons at the diner, for example, refers to the "nastiest dream" that he had about Landa the other night), the film's fondness for the most mind-bending and seemingly random of details, frequently involving strangely-placed animals, certainly lends itself to this interpretation.  It's not enough, for example, to have Harry crash into a palm tree - he must crash his car into a palm tree and have a family of rats drop down upon his bonnet.  A cockroach is also seen crawling across Harry's hand as he answers the call from Chip, as if anticipating that it will shortly be its time to shine.  (Animals in general - from the nicotine-addled pigeon who causes the the power failure in Harry's apartment building to the coyote seen raiding the deserted diner, to the aforementioned koala billboard - act largely as harbingers of chaos in Miracle Mile, a manifestation of wild unruliness as it seeps its way in through the cracks of this alleged civilisation).  De Jarnatt knowingly goads us into reaching for such for such an interpretation, in the recognition that, despite it being an entirely facile and all-too simple solution to Harry's problem, as the intensity of his situation escalates, it increasingly becomes his only means of getting out intact (even if Chip's alarm turned out to be false, there comes a point where Harry would have caused far too much damage for him not to have to live with the repercussions).  Indeed, it's a fairly safe bet that the abandoned Twilight Zone version of the story would have taken such a route, with the sequence of events transpiring to be a dream or a delusion of some variety (the big budget version that Warner Brothers envisioned, meanwhile, would likely have had Harry save the day - or at least get out alive - through some hokey heroic feat). 

De Jarnatt, admirably and wisely, offers no such safety net, following the horrors of the scenario he's created through to the only way that it can logically end - that is, with a return trip to the La Brea Tar Pits where the action began, and with the conclusion that humankind, being mortal, conflict-inclined and inherently chaotic, must ultimately return to the primordial stew from whence it came.