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  Water Babies, The H2O Dear
Year: 1978
Director: Lionel Jeffries
Stars: James Mason, Bernard Cribbins, Billie Whitelaw, Joan Greenwood, David Tomlinson, Tommy Pender, Samantha Gates, Paul Luty, Jon Pertwee, Olive Gregg, Lance Percival, David Jason, Cass Allan, Liz Proud, Una Stubbs
Genre: Animated, Historical, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 2 votes)
Review: The year is 1850 and young Tom (Tommy Pender) is a chimney sweep under the ownership of the wicked Mr Grimes (James Mason) and his right hand man Masterman (Bernard Cribbins). Tom is only able to enjoy his poverty-stricken life when he is let off the leash and runs through the city streets looking for food to steal, but today he sees something unusual as he and his pet dog find a sideshow. It claims to exhibit the "Woman Without a Body" (Billie Whitelaw), and when the boy invesitgates, she winks at him; he goes backstage and sees the trickery for what it is, but something about her stays with him as Grimes takes him to a Yorkshire country mansion, ostensibly to clean its chimneys...

Lionel Jeffries had not only proved himself an excellent comic character actor, but also a talented director when the nineteen-seventies arrived and he adapted The Railway Children, an all-time classic by any reasonable yardstick. His follow-up, The Amazing Mr Blunden wasn't quite as accomplished, but was very worthwhile nonetheless, yet after those two his sure hand at the helm of children's films seemed less confident, and by the end of the decade he had returned to acting. The Water Babies, a version of Charles Kingsley's "improving" fantasy novel, was to be his last film as director, and although it did not receive a warm welcome at the time, many have happy memories of it from their childhood.

So perhaps Jeffries was not quite the washout (pardon the pun) that the critics thought he was in 1978, as there's a lot to like about this film, it's simply that the two parts, the live action and the animation, never really cohere in spite of strenuous efforts to integrate them. The live action sequences do work up an atmosphere of early Victorian England that would have put many a BBC period drama of the day to shame, and although you can tell they were operating on a low budget, the force of the cast - and there are many seasoned players here - and a chilly, overcast look to the landscape do have a quality all their own that makes you wonder if anyone contemplated ditching the cartoon bits altogether.

Now, those animations, the product of a Polish studio, are meant to be what the kiddies would be looking forward to, but when they arrive they were patently achieved on an impoverished budget and often have the look of Saturday morning television; a Cosgrove Hall production would have been more pleasing to the eye. As it is, there's the same chill about the supposedly joyful and colourful segments, obviously inspired by The Wizard of Oz but falling far short of that film's magic, as though the cast were attempting to buoy our spirits even though we were walking through a dark, dank and echoing building.

Tom becomes his cartoon self after jumping into a fast-flowing river to escape the law; not because he has done anything wrong, but because he has been falsely accused of stealing the mansion's silverware and believes he will be hanged. Once submerged, the idea of simply surfacing when everyone had gone apparently doesn't occur to him (it's not a very deep river), but he does have the excuse to travel to the ocean, pick up some buddies along the way (such as a Scottish lobster and a gay seahorse), and meet with the Wizard, sorry, the Kraken who will put him back to his previous form. All the while avoiding the evil shark and his electric eel henchman (voiced by Mason and Cribbins respectively) and saving the Water Babies. It could be that the framing sections have too much downbeat effect on the cartoons, but even with that happy ending there's not much cheering about this, so how you react to it will undoubtedly apply to when you first saw it. Music by Phil Coulter, which includes catchy songs.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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