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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Opus N' Bill in a Wish for Wings That Work
Opus N' Bill in a Wish for Wings That Work
Universal // Unrated // November 6, 2007
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by David Cornelius | posted November 12, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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The general consensus on the 1991 TV special "A Wish for Wings That Work" is this: Berkeley Breathed has pretty much disowned the thing, while "Bloom County" fans could never quite approve of the voice given to their beloved Opus. As such, it never really grew into a holiday perennial, fading quickly out of view except in the minds of a tiny handful of devoted fans.

But let's back up a bit. "A Wish for Wings That Work" was cartoonist Breathed's first children's book, nicely bridging his popular work on the daily comic strip "Bloom County" and his future work as a children's author. The book, released in 1991 at the height of his success with "Outland" (the weekly "Bloom" spin-off strip), featured Opus the penguin as he dreamed of glorious flight. Other "Outland" denizens made appearances, most notably Opus' unshakeable sidekick Bill the Cat, and it was curious to see these characters, so thoroughly known for bright, adult commentary, be used for a children's adventure.

As it turns out, the move worked perfectly. Breathed's increasingly surreal artwork looks lovely stretched out across those oversized pages, and Opus and Bill click in the genre. (My daughter adores them even more than I do.) Along with other "Bloom" favorites, they returned for two more children's books; Breathed has since released several other non-"Bloom" adventures, all wonderfully displaying the artist's smart sense of wordplay, character, and imagery.

It makes sense, then, that Opus and Bill would also find their way into animation. And so the cartoon branch of Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, which launched the year before with "Tiny Toons," was brought in to adapt "Wings That Work," with a screenplay from Breathed himself; the half-hour cartoon special aired in December 1991 (mere months after the book hit store shelves) to mediocre ratings and, ultimately, the disapproval of Breathed himself.

Looking at the special now, after years of unavailability (it feels like the VHS edition went out of print ages ago), it's easy to see why Breathed might not have liked it, but it's difficult to see why he'd hate it that much. The author's script is rushed, trying to cram too much into a tight 24-minute running time, getting to the good stuff a bit too late, and then ending the good stuff all too early.

The story: Opus, a rather depressed penguin, wants to fly, but he's stuck down here on the ground with friends who don't really understand his plight. Even his support group - made up of a kiwi and a chicken - offer little help, while a band of ducks enjoys tormenting the poor fella. On Christmas Eve, Santa arrives, and although things don't quite turn out the way Opus imagined they would, there is indeed a happy ending for our friend.

Such a plot recap doesn't quite deliver the sense of storytelling chaos that explodes over this special. "Wings That Work" is too disjointed in its episodic ramblings; the support group bit doesn't connect well with the ducks bit, which doesn't connect well with the inexplicable uncredited cameos from, of all people, Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman (as, respectively, the kiwi and a cockroach), which doesn't connect well with the subplot about Opus' frustrations with the socially inept Bill. Tossed in there somewhere is an overlong dream sequence which utilizes footage from the 1937 film "Lost Horizon," which is a great joke, but it ultimately stumbles from a lack of proper comic rhythm and a refusal to end when it should.

Once Santa finally arrives, the story starts to gel, and we get a sense of the uplifting message at play: Opus' wings are good for something after all, and maybe, just maybe, he could learn to be happy as himself. Ah, but the whole third act races through with no desire to slow down and enjoy the moment; all too soon we're jumping ahead to a pleasant but slightly unearned payoff, and then the whole thing's over.

But for all its problems, "Wings That Work" maintains a certain charm. This is perhaps owing to Opus himself, such a strong, identifiable character. There's a little Opus in all of us, really, and even a problematic story can 't shake the fact that watching this penguin in action is such an easy-going affair. As brought to life here, he's a delightful cartoon lead.

Plus, in fits and spurts, the whole thing is pretty darn funny, even if it never completely adds up. Bill's antics offer some well-timed slapstick; Opus' "Lost Horizon" dream has a nifty quirkiness to it (even if it runs out of steam early); those ducks, voiced by cartoon vet Joe Alaskey, deliver a bit of Three Stooges-ness to the proceedings; the idea to score Santa's sleigh ride with the theme from "The Magnificent Seven" just feels right. Lovely animation design and a sweet musical score also help lift the special beyond its storytelling hiccups.

There is, however, one other hiccup, and in the minds of countless "Bloom County" fans, it's a big one: Opus' voice. It is, perhaps, impossible to properly cast a character whose voice has existed only in the minds of readers. (I'd even argue that most fans give their own voices to Opus, considering how he's our surrogate on the comics page.) Breathed himself recently commented that he thought Sterling Holloway, the legendary voice of Disney's Winnie the Pooh, would have made a proper fit for the penguin - a choice which may surprise many fans (myself included) who never imagined Opus in an "oh bother" tone, and a choice which may explain the casting of voice over artist Michael Bell.

Bell, whose long career has made him one of the most recognizable voices on television (you've heard him in everything from "SuperFriends" to "G.I. Joe" to "Rugrats"), brought a bit of Holloway to his performance as Opus, with a nervous little voice nearly identical to his Chazz Finster role on "Rugrats." As Opus, he's very good (all the voice work is, even the overly hammy Robin Williams bits), but is he right?

My initial reaction to the special was that he was all wrong. Just a gut feeling, really, and one apparently shared by many other fans. Watching the special years later, I found myself warming to the idea. He might not sound like my Opus, but he does sound like the right Opus for this story.

And that, I suppose, is the best way to describe "Wings That Work." It's something separate from the comic strips. This is Opus reborn as the star of children's literature, and while he's not quite the Opus us grown-ups remember from decades ago, he's perfect for these colorful new books. And the TV special captures just a pinch of that magic.

"Wings That Work" remains the only adaptation of Breathed's work to be released to the public. Disney produced a cartoon short based on "Edward Fudwupper Fibbed Big," yet that's remained unreleased for some seven years now, possibly in part to Breathed being his own worst critic (his dislike of both cartoons has grown over the years), and possibly in part to Breathed maintaining a strict control over his creations that will likely prevent any future adaptations, including the off-and-on Opus movie which currently seems, unfortunately, to be off again.


Video & Audio

Presented in its original 1.33:1 broadcast format, there's a hint of softness to the picture, but only in the sense of animation limitations of the era. The same goes for some graininess that seems intrusive until you realize it's only part of the elaborately painted backgrounds. The characters themselves pop off the screen with bright, bold colors (an exception being darkly "lit" night scenes, which add some grain to the characters, probably another issue with the source material itself), without a hint of combing or other such artifacting that often hinders digital upgrades of older animation.

The soundtrack, in Dolby stereo, is passable but unimpressive, although such a program never really demanded audio overkill. English SDH subtitles are provided.


Sadly, no bonus material is included.

Final Thoughts

A slim twenty-four minutes of programming with zero supplementals (not even previews!) makes for a tough sell, and although Universal has accommodated by setting a low asking price, it still seems a bit much to pay anything over ten bucks for this disc. And yet, despite this, I'll still say "Wings That Work" is Recommended to longtime fans of Breathed's work, and to families looking for something fresh to add to their holiday DVD collection. It'd go well with the book.
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