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Tales of Beatrix Potter

Tales of Beatrix Potter
Anchor Bay
1971 / Color / 1:66 anamorphic 16:9 / 90 min. / Street Date February 10, 2004 / 14.98
Cinematography Austin Dempster
Production Designer Christine Edzard
Masks Rotislav Doboujinsky
Choreography Frederick Ashton
Film Editor John Rushton
Original Music John Lanchbery
Written by Christine Edzard, Richard B. Goodwin from the books by Beatrix Potter
Produced by John Brabourne, Richard B. Goodwin
Directed by Reginald Mills

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Genre fans now remember 1971 as the year of quality X-rated shock films: The Devils, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, etc.. As the once-flourishing British film industry fluttered to a stop, it also produced some remarkable original efforts of a less-sensational nature, like the superior 'family' film The Railway Children.

Ballet movies tend to fade from memory as quickly as opera movies. Anyone remember Aida1 Along with the more arcane Shakespeare films, films about fine dance tend to be shown in local 'special series' where you're most likely to find schoolkids being dragged in on special trips.

Tales of Beatrix Potter is a ballet film civilians can sit through. There's almost no plot and it will be slow going for anyone incapable of appreciating delicate dance steps. This category definitely includes Savant, but I was captivated by the film's production values and the amazing characterizations.

Besides a few boring minutes devoted to a live-action Beatrix Potter (Erin Geraghty) walking in the greenery and inking her pictures of little frock-coated mice and what-not, the film takes place on stylized sets that almost perfectly match the famous Potter storybook illustrations. Some acres of lush hedgerow country are seen for longshots of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle the hedgehog (Frederick Ashton, also the choreographer). But the dancing takes place on clever sets that to matte-in the scenic backgrounds often use large-scale front projection as pioneered in 2001.  2

It's a formal dance movie. The camera cuts to enliven the proceedings, but the emphasis is on recording a dance performance, not creating a cinematic dance movie. It's also not a kiddie picture per se. Little boys will soon tire of the whole show - there's only the music on the soundtrack, not even any sound effects to speak of. Little girls may be enchanted by the enterprise, however.

The masks are amazing reproductions of the 'look' of the Potter illustrations, life-like furry faces of mice and squirrels with appropriately beady eyes. In terms of stage illusion, I don't see how they could get better - only Jemima Puddle-Duck (Ann Howard) looks a little strange, with legs that 'bend the wrong way.' The pigs strut and curtsey with good humor, the squirrels are frisky, etc.. Most impressive is how the dancers can do what they do when their visibility is so severely hampered. Unlike the Disney walk-around park characters, we can't see any eye-ports anywhere in these animal heads. Rotislav Doboujinsky's masks are almost surreal in their lifelike serenity. If it weren't pitched at a completely different tone, the film would remind us of Franju's Judex, with its masked Ball of surreal bird-headed aristocrats.

There's no denying the quality of the dancing, either. The choreography is always inventive. Little toe-shoe work is perfect for the mice, who end up forming a funny chain, and playing cat's cradle, with their own tails. The pigs are charmingly middle-class. We follow two jolly porkers off to find their fortunes. One ends up meeting the hog of his dreams in a deserted shop - which turns out to be a pork butcher's establishment.

The movements are scaled to the kind of animal involved, and matched to express their physical qualities. The Puddle-Duck has a certain grace in her waddle, while her 'beau' the Fox (Robert Mead in a grand red outfit) plays the gentleman swain. Squirrel Nutkin (Carol Ainsworth) is a cocky troublemaker, until a baleful owl teaches him a lesson.

There's always somebody in a ballet who leaps up in the air a lot, and the showoff here is a likeable frog named Jeremy Fisher (Michael Coleman) who executes pirouettes and high leaps as one would expect from his species. He also appears to have a tough time when he (oh no) falls in the water while fishing, which is a good joke for a frog character.

My favorite episode has a pair of enterprising mice leave their mouse-hole (while a giant cat stares at them, a la The Incredible Shrinking Man). Like the shrinking Robert Scott Carey, they investigate a dollhouse, which seems a perfect domicile until they discover that all the food in the cupboards are fakes made of porcelain. They then proceed to trash the whole place, breaking crockery and ripping up the beds. It's pretty funny.

Tales of Beatrix Potter is obviously meant for ballet fans, a decidedly small group that will appreciate the fine work seen here. For others, it will be on the slow side ... although DVD's ability to skip around might work in its favor.

For the record, this film's Frederic Ashton choreographed and danced in television's 1969 Cinderella, and did the same for Powell and Pressburger's 1951 opera-bash The Tales of Hoffman. Writer Christine Edzard is the director of the superior 1987 two-part Little Dorrit, that MGM may someday release. Producer Richard Goodwin has a sterling track record that includes David Lean's A Passage to India. And director Reginald Mills was editor on not only the The Red Shoes and other Powell classics, but also cut Circus of Horrors, These are the Damned, The Servant and some other Joseph Losey classics as well.

Anchor Bay's DVD of Tales of Beatrix Potter is a near-perfect transfer, enhanced. It looks far better than the 16mm prints I showed at UCLA a long time ago, because the 16:9 formatting removes acres of dead sky and floor from the extremes of the picture, and gives us a better look at the remarkable sets. The color is excellent.

Any text extra or BTS material would have been extremely welcome - even just to see the real faces of the dancers. We find ourselves guessing the sex of the dancer by looking at legs ... which isn't the best indicator. There is a theatrical trailer from its English release that uses an "It's good for you" sell approach with a "bring the kiddies" tag that probably did nothing for the film at all.

Back in college, I got nothing but compliments from the neglected dorm girls at UCLA's Sproul Hall. I guess I'd been showing a steady diet of action movies, and they really went for this one. I'd finagled a beautiful one sheet from National Screen (similar to Anchor Bay's DVD box art) and had to fight off requests for it after the show. There's room for every kind of picture out there, and Tales of Beatrix Potter is a good example of a superb niche movie.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Tales of Beatrix Potter rates:
Movie: Excellent for its audience
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 12, 2004


1. There must be a dozen versions. One is from 1953 Italy and stars Sophia Loren (!) and Lois Maxwell (!!!).

2. If I'm wrong and it's rear-projection, it's awfully good-looking.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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