Based on the best selling children's book by author Holling C. Holling, Bill Mason's short film Paddle To The Sea was (and may still be) a staple of Canadian classrooms in the seventies and eighties. The twenty-eight minute film, financed by the National Film Board of Canada, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1968 for Best Live Action Short and has garnered a minor cult following over the years.
The premise for the picture is deceptively simple. A young boy named Kyle lives in the woods of Western Ontario where he dreams of one day seeing the Atlantic Ocean. He knows it isn't going to happen any time soon so he carves a piece of wood into a small wooden canoe with a Native man inside. On the bottom he inscribes the words 'I am Paddle To The Sea. Please return me to the water.' He sets his carving atop a snowy hill and when the sun warms it, the boat slides down into a nearby river which connects it to Lake Superior. From there, the canoe makes its way through the Great Lakes, over Niagara Falls, and eventually out to the Atlantic Ocean.
Along the way the little canoe saves a frog, befriends a water snake, gets beached on the shore, discovers the pollution in the waters near Detroit, and gets caught by a little boy, then later a group of fishermen. This is essentially a brief travelogue with a minor plot that allows us to care enough about this odd little carving that we're actually able to invest a bit of emotion into the picture. As such, we really find ourselves wanting 'Paddle To The Sea' to make it - it's hard not to care about the little guy!
While the film was originally intended for a children's audience, adults will certainly appreciate some of the beautiful scenery and fantastic camerawork that carries the canoe thousands of miles across the country. There are a few striking and memorable compositions in the film, contrasting the small wooden boat against and industrial freighter or against the murky polluted waters. There's an eerie sense of malaise to the short scene where the water snake rests on top of the canoe and a sense of excitement when the frog uses the canoe to escape the jaws of a hungry fish.
Highbrow analysis will certainly claim that the film is a testament to the forces of nature, and it's pretty hard to deny that but at the same time, Paddle To The Sea is, quite simply, a neat and enjoyable little film. You can interpret it as a testament to the world around us or as a short adventure film about a wooden canoe, either way it's just as enjoyable now as it was decades ago.
Paddle To The Sea was shot on 16mm film stock and is presented here in its original 1.33.1 aspect ratio. There's a bit of grain throughout the presentation but no more than you'd expect and while a couple of nicks and scratches show up on the transfer, none of them are particularly distracting. For a low budget 16mm production that recently celebrated its fortieth birthday, Paddle To The Sea actually looks surprisingly good on this DVD. The colors are nice and natural looking and there's a pretty solid level of detail present. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts nor is there an over abundance of edge enhancement or aliasing to complain about.
The sole audio track on this DVD is an English language Dolby Digital Mono affair. There are no subtitles or closed captions of any kind available. The film's sound mix is pretty minimalist, consisting only of narration and music with a few sound effects here and there so the mono track works fine for this material. There aren't any problems with hiss or distortion and the levels are all well balanced. This isn't an extravagant mix by any stretch but it's certainly more than adequate.
The DVD has a static menu and a chapter selection submenu but is otherwise completely barebones. Inside the keepcase, however, is a booklet containing stills from the film and a two page essay on the history of the film courtesy of Michael Korsky.
It would have been nice to see some more supplemental material but the reality is that this is a quirky and somewhat obscure little Canadian short film so there probably isn't a whole lot of material out there in the first place. That said, it's great to have this gem on disc - it really is one of those films that's fun for kids of all ages. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.