Here is the small town of Pinchcliffe, and towering above it is a mountain plateau on which the home of inventor Theodore Rimspoke sits. Theodore shares his home with his assistants Sonny Duckworth, a chirpy magpie (or is he a duck?), and Lambert, a hay fever-suffering hedgehog, and they are very happy working on the bicycles that they repair for a fee. The whole house, workshop and its surroundings are testament to Theodore's talent for creating things, but one morning when Sonny brings him the newspaper, they notice a super-duper racing car on the front page, which is driven by somebody not unknown to the old man...
The answer to the question, "What's the most successful Norwegian film of all time?" is this, The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix as it was known in Britain, and Flåklypa Grand Prix as it was known in its native land. It was shown in cinemas continuously somewhere in the world for almost thirty years straight, and went over especially well in the likes of Russia and Japan, but it has become an institution in Norway, where it is shown every Christmastime, much like The Snowman is in the United Kingdom. Not bad for a production that almost never happened at all, as funding for its original incarnation as a television special fell through.
But the puppets had been made, and director Ivo Caprino forged ahead to make a feature film instead, making history in the process. The level of detail is quite something to behold, and the charming characterisation places it on a par with Nick Park's Wallace and Gromit animations, but for its first hour it's a curiously sedate experience. Gentle, even, with the rivalry between Theodore's old apprentice Gore-Slimey, who is the champion driver of the car they see on the front page, and the three friends not exactly the kind of thing that you could imagine fuelling much of a battle, as the ill-feeling doesn't appear to run that deep.
But Sonny is determined to show up Gore-Slimey when he catches him on television demonstrating the invention that makes his race car so much better than anyone else's - because the invention was stolen from Theodore! It is the little bird who persuades the craftsman to build his own car, which has a secret weapon of its own, and they find funding from an unlikely source. It so happens that Sonny notices through his binoculars a Sheik at the bottom of the mountain, and he owns an oil company, so who better to put up the cash? Once the Sheik sees a drawing of what Theodore has in mind, he's only too glad to be a part of the plan.
Gore-Slimey may try to sabotage their Il Tempo-Gigante, but we are safe in the knowledge that good will triumph over evil, so it's just a matter of enjoying the Grand Prix of the title. Up until that point all has been quaint and cosy, but once the drivers get behind the wheel and the race commences, all hell breaks loose in a lightning fast, white knuckle ride of a half-hour finale. This sequence was reputedly the inspiration for the pod race in the otherwise disappointing Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, but if anything the Norwegian film is better as the action arrives from out of the blue compared to what has gone before. Brilliantly fashioned and genuinely tense, it bullets along while never letting go of the enchantment carefully built up over the rest of the film, and for British viewers there was the novelty of hearing Formula 1 commentator Murray Walker narrating the contest. This was truly one of the best animated adventures of its era, and has a place in the heart of anyone who ever played with toy cars. Music by Bent Fabricius-Bjerre.