It was the classic movie stars that drew me to the 1987 Rankin and Bass television version of The Wind in the Willows. Roddy McDowall, Jose Ferrer and Eddie Bracken as Ratty, Badger and Moley respectively? I knew it had to be good. And it is a lot of fun. With jaunty tunes, artfully executed animation and a polished voice cast in addition to those classic Hollywood names, this is an upbeat, fun film, and it's now available for the first time on DVD from Warner Archive.
If there's one thing that makes this version of the often-filmed 1908 Kenneth Grahame book special, it's the voice acting. McDowall, Ferrer and Bracken bring satisfying depth to their roles; you never get the feeling they're just coasting through some kiddie stuff. Seasoned voice artists Paul Frees and Charles Nelson Reilly are equally charming. Reilly is a perfect fit for the eccentric Toad; it's hard to imagine anyone else playing the character after hearing him do it.
I was also surprised by how pretty the animation was, especially for a television production. The images of the countryside were postcard scenic. It was an almost unnecessarily lush background, but I enjoyed the attention to detail. Because I was especially focused on the look of the film, I did notice an unusual difference between the wide shots and close-ups of the characters, the latter seemed fuzzier to me. That said, the film is in essentially good condition.
Though not terribly memorable, the songs were pleasant and somewhat catchy. They had a weirdly groovy sound which seemed more like the 60s or 70s than the early 80s (it was made a few years before it was broadcast). I liked that the actors did their own singing; I think the tunes might have sounded better than they really were because they were so expertly acted. Judy Collins does a beautiful job with the theme song, which perfectly captures the feel of the countryside in the film.
I enjoyed the high-spirited feel of the production. The characters are so lovable, even when they're being exasperating. There's no need for life-threatening conflicts or scary villains to keep it interesting. It made me realize how intense most films for kids have become. Even movies with a lot of heart, like Inside Out (2015), can still be so emotionally wrenching. It's nice to feel refreshed at the end of a family film, instead of being totally drained.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.