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:


Gahhh.

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.

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