Mole (Steve Coogan) is putting the finishing touches to his underground home, preparing to settle down for tea as the clock on the wall tells him it's about that time. Suddenly, the room begins to shake and he is sent fleeing from his abode, tunneling up to the surface to see that a great big earth-moving machine is bearing down on him, forcing him to get out the meadow as quickly as he can. He heads for the house of Ratty (Eric Idle), his friend who lives by the river, but has trouble making him realise the grave situation he has found himself in. Could this be the fault of Mr Toad (Terry Jones)?
In a way, the answer is yes, but if you recall Kenneth Grahame's book The Wind in the Willows from you childhood as a pastoral and quaint little tale, Jones' adaptation might seem quite alien to you. Here he adopts the more noise, more fury, more everything approach to bring the story up to the nineties, as if well aware of all the noisy and furious blockbusters that apparently he thought he was contending against. The result is a loose version which with sad inevitability felt it had to end on an explosion; the impression is that if Jones could have shoehorned in more things blowing up, then he gladly would have.
This was notable, on the other hand, as the final film to feature most of the surviving members of the Monty Python team: Terry Gilliam wasn't there, but the others were, with Michael Palin, by now tiring of acting, given a small role as the sun. Little notes like this point to a more charming film than the one we got, as the cast are very well chosen and could have easily satisfied in a far more conventional adaptation, but Jones rarely stops to allow us to catch our breath, not even to appreciate the odd witty line. He did give himself the best role, and is an enthusiastic Toad, but his over the top method means the characters are lost in the commotion.
Not to mention that the director seems unsure of what season it is supposed to be, as the story starts in the height of summer, then a few hours later it is the dead of winter, then the next day the leaves are back on the trees, all without explanation. Background such as that renders the foreground in confusion, although the essential plot remains similar to Grahame's, up until the introduction of the dog food factory which our heroes have to negotiate. There are signs that this was intended to be a musical, as every so often someone starts singing, but only for about thirty seconds or so, feeling like another opportunity missed.
Yet for all its drawbacks, the sheer energy and obvious affection for its subject, no matter how misguided the attempt at breathing new life into it, does mean that the pace never flags. In spite of surface appearances, there's a respect for the traditonal British way of life that emerges in the environmental themes, as the Weasels are ripping up the countryside, and the view of history as something that should be preserved, ecapsulated in Toad Hall, which the Weasels are also keen to destroy. So for a film that tries to be incredibly "now", its whiz-bang tone is somewhat at odds with the love of the culture it is drawn from; this means steam trains and vintage cars are pressed into service for hectic action sequences, the most obvious example of the split personality this suffers from. You could argue that the book is still there for anyone to read, but the very decent cast does point to a more faithful telling that might have been better. Music by John Du Prez.