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Savant Review:

Ring of Bright Water
Anchor Bay
1969 / Color / 1:78 / 16:9 / Dolby Digital mono
Starring Virginia McKenna, Bill Travers
Cinematography Wolfgang Suschitsky
Film Editor Reginald Mills
Original Music Frank Cordell
Writing credits Jack Couffer and Bill Travers
Produced by Joseph Strick
Directed by Jack Couffer

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Animal movies.  Kiddie movies.  Sammy, the Way-Out Seal.  These are the kinds of things we associate with children's movies involving animals: light entertainment that usually has nothing to do with the real nature of animals themselves.  Lassie the book was probably different, but the movie Lassie (probably influenced by the Douglas Fairbanks-inflected Rin-Tin-Tin) was some kind of mythical dog with, as Mad magazine once said, a college professor trapped inside.  As a kid I expected dogs to read my mind, and play intelligently with me as they did on TV.  No wonder I've never gotten into pets.  Dealing with humans was task enough, and the responsibility of taking care of a pet was a weight I was never ready for.

In the '60s heyday, every darn thing you can think of became a cuddly pet (Flipper, Gentle Ben, etc.), making producer Ivan Tors a millionaire. Savant actually had to cut a promo for a gawdawful thing called Zebra in the Kitchen, which had a title tune by, I believe, The Beach Boys.   Ivan Tors started doing Science Fiction movies in the fifties (GOG, Riders to the Stars), so it's ironic that the genre was subsumed back into Sci Fi in Steven Spielberg's beloved but brainless E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial.  This movie is Lassie Come Home all over again, but with the psychic communication between boy and 'other' being literal.  The tear-jerkiness of the kiddie animal film is there too.  Although obviously masterfully directed, E.T. was total insulting manipulation for Savant; when the boy found the white, sickly alien in the culvert, all I felt was the sickening, guilty real kid memory of discovering that that pet turtle or whatever has simply been forgotten to death.  E.T.'s insistence that we invest our deepest emotions on that level, I thought unhealthy.  The *&@% movie was so universally adored that when I expressed my dissenting opinion in almost any gathering of people, I was practically asked to leave the room! E.T. made me a social pariah! News at eleven.

This brings us roundabout to Ring of Bright Water, the prime exponent of a handful of animal movies that didn't lay on Hollywood schmaltz and John Williams music to soften our brains as well as our hearts.  Virginia McKenna and her husband, Bill Travers, were pioneering animal rights activists before the term was invented.  Both were already reasonably big names in English films (he: Wee Geordie; she: Carve Her Name With Pride); who struck pay dirt in an only slightly treacly animal epic that became a sensation in 1965: Born Free.  An otherwise indifferent plea to save the animals of the African veldt, a hit song by John Barry and Matt Munro propelled it to the big time.

Travers and McKenna were realists who did not imagine that they had reinvented cinema with Born Free.  What people really remembered from that film was the song, and the cutesy scenes of the little lion cubs playing, which thereby taught us all that cute and cuddly animals need protection the most.  Four years later, they took the nonfiction book by best-selling naturalist author Gavin Maxwell, and with the interesting producer Joseph Strick (Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer, Never Cry Wolf) produced an extremely charming, low-key movie about a man and his otter that, well, made a big splash in 1969.  In our town, Star! came and went in five days; Ring of Bright Water lasted four weeks.


Graham Merrill (Bill Travers) is a writer unhappy with his day job in London.  He becomes interested in an otter he espies one day in a pet store.  He tries to keep it in his apartment, a hopeless ambition.  Finally he rents a seaside wreck of a cottage in a remote corner of Scotland, and takes the otter (now named Mij) with him.  There he meets local doctor Mary McKenzie (Virginia McKenna) and her dog, both of whom take an equal liking to Mij, and the extremely gentle Graham.  He's the low blood-pressure kind of guy who smiles understandingly when Mij destroys his furniture and eats his tropical fish.  The problem of feeding Mij when the local eel population is depleted leads to an unlikely expedition to harpoon a giant basking shark for an otter food supply.  Mij is apparently seduced by a wild she-otter and Graham rows for miles to bring him back.  Finally, Graham realizes his attachment to his pet is preventing him from getting on with his writing.  He rationalizes his year in Scotland as a respite from the grind in London.  But when is enough, enough?

Telling people that, "hey, it's a kid's movie, but for adults too!" is a guaranteed ticket to boxoffice doom.  The truth is that Ring of Bright Water is too good for kids.  It's like a respite from frantic, MTV-agitated movies - slow paced (possibly too slow for many, especially the first fifteen minutes or so), literal, and devoid of mechanical crises and manipulating trauma.  Those pesky hunters of The Bear are mostly absent, and we're not worrying every moment if coyotes or sharks or dingoes are going to Off Oskar the Otter or anything.  Instead, we simply observe the naturally interesting Mij, and watch Travers try to deal with the problems of living with such a creature.  The kinds of antics that pad out Disney movies are there to some degree, but Mij is never an anthropomorphosed 'delinquent' getting into mischief.  He's just an animal with some dignity, and that's enough.

The lesson here is that, although Mij is an animal, he does know how to live and love and play in a simple way that Graham Merrill thinks humanity living in cities has forgotten.  The idea that animals are precious and not to be killed for frivolous purposes is also excellently communicated, without hectoring speeches or scenes of slaughter.  On a trip to London, Graham simply stops in front of a store selling an otter coat, and stares at it for a beat.

Director Jack Couffer, or somebody, has applied a gentle, low-keyed approach to this story that brings out the charm in both the players and the beautiful Scottish coast.  We see lots of pleasant faces, of kids and adults charmed by Mij, of town gossips and canny fish-peddlers; Ring of Bright Water neither judges them nor gives them 'dramatic' roles to play.  An obvious romance exists between Travers and McKenna, an affection that also arises naturally.  Cameraman Wolfgang Suschitsky (Get Carter) has filmed some amazingly candid otter footage, a lot of which looks looks as though it was very difficult to capture.  The show never degenerates to 'home movie' grab-shots of the fast-moving, unpredictable animal.  The director in fact comes up with a number of subtle touches, such as showing a large spider's web, just as we're concerned about Mij being caught elsewhere in a fisherman's net.

Finally, Ring of Bright Water presents a reasonably realistic world neither too violent (Namu, the Killer Whale) nor too sweet for credibility.  Mij doesn't rescue any lost children or have any secret powers of understanding.  He gets hungry.  He's too domesticated to survive on his own when an oily femme otter seduces him away from his cozy home.  Actually, since all otters are substantially oily, that's an unfair remark, and Savant retracts it.  Mij's survival skills don't include the knowledge that an ordinary human stranger might consider him vermin to be exterminated.  When accidents do happen, they have to be accepted as part of living ... this Mij can't 'phone home' and dodge the consequences of reality, as seems to be the real message of so much of Children's Entertainment.

Anchor Bay's DVD of Ring of Bright Water has the kind of quality we're coming to expect from that label.  The sound is clear, and widescreen-enhancement presents the scenery and wildlife with a bright and vivid picture.  If only the major studios would give their libraries the kind of attention afforded these 'unaffiliated' movies!  The only extra is a trailer that drearily tries to sell the movie as a comedy Born Free.  The coming attraction's grim quality makes appreciating the main feature even easier.

Ring of Bright Water charmingly presents some very pleasant people and animals in a beautiful landscape, and lets all three act naturally.  Unassuming, mildly humorous and winningly sincere, it's one of the best movies of its kind to date.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Ring of Bright Water rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Alpha case
Reviewed: January 21, 2001

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