I don’t know that I’ve ever really outgrown a lot of movies and TV shows that are created with kids in mind. My obsession with the Muppets should be evidence enough of that. Of course, every nation has it’s own unique creations when it comes to kids entertainment. Being a native of the US, I had never heard of the stars of a popular kids series in the UK known as the Wombles. These furry critters have been the stars of a couple of different television series’ in the UK beginning back in 1973. Originally the characters were brought to life via stop motion animation, but in 1977, the characters hit the big screen in a live action feature film…Wombling Free.
The film begins by explaining to us that Wombles have been here since the beginning, dutifully cleaning up the messes left behind by human beings. Our story focuses on a group of Wombles that live on Wimbledon Common led by Great Uncle Bulgaria. The Wombles are only seen by those who choose to…and nobody does. This includes the grumpy Roland Frogmoton (David Tomlinson of Mary Poppins fame) and his wife Julia (Francis de la Tour). It sure would be nicer for everyone if the humans did see the Wombles, because then they might take more of an interest in not throwing trash around and recycling things.
One Womble in particular, Bungo, is determined to be heard by the humans. One day he finally catches the attention of young Kim Frogmorton (Bonnie Langford), but nobody believes her when she talks about the strange creatures. The Wombles end up spending the majority of the film attempting various plans to try and get the rest of the humans to notice them…with the occasional musical numbers thrown in. Among the performers bringing the Wombles to life are Kenny Baker and Jack Purvis, with voices provided by the likes of Janet Brown, Jon Pertwee, and Lionel Jeffries (who also directed the film).
Say what you will about me, but Wombling Free is kind of a fun little kids film. If nothing else, you’ve certainly got to admire the forward thinking of the film. This was released in 1977, long before most people were concerned with things like recycling. The Wombles, however, spend all day picking up trash which they then feed into a machine that recycles the trash into fertilizer for their garden. Plus, they’ve also taken steps toward ditching oil by tinkering with making wind up cars. You’re not gonna catch the Wombles zippin’ across the globe in private jets and renting giant gas guzzling yachts! Yes, I’m looking at you Mr. DiCaprio. I’m not usually one for message movies, but this one promotes positive ideas without glaring down at it’s audience from the moral high ground.
It is true that the Womble costumes are not all that expressive. They look a bit like giant hedgehogs and the costumes themselves are quite reminiscent of what US audiences would see in the children’s television series’ produced by Sid and Marty Krofft. For much of the film I had a hard time telling the different Womble characters apart. The only things that really distinguish them from each other is their hats. Make them all different colors and I would’ve done better. The voices, though, are appealing and certainly add some character to the critters.
I’ve always felt that the best children’s entertainment appeals, at least on a certain level, to any age…that includes adults. That’s part of what makes Sesame Street so successful. Wombling Free certainly has a few moments that were created with the adults in mind. The best is a sequences where the Wombles visit a rundown movie theater and imagine themselves in a musical number that pays tribute to classic Hollywood musicals. We see them recreate moments from Singin’ in the Rain, The Sound of Music, Anchor’s Aweigh, and more. Kids, even in 1977, probably didn’t get the references. For an adult, however, there’s something wonderfully ridiculous about seeing a giant hedgehog spinning around and singing “The hills are alive with the sound of Wombles.”
Where the film loses some steam is when it dwells too much on the human characters. Though I love David Tomlinson from his numerous appearances in Disney films, he’s kind of sleepwalking his way through this film. There is a lengthy sequence in the middle of the movie where he and his family have dinner with their Japanese neighbors which is sleep inducing and almost derails the second half of the movie. Speaking of the neighbors, be forewarned that they are slightly un-PC. The Japanese husband is played by Bernard Spear, who was most definitely not Japanese and who put way too much effort into substituting his L’s with R’s and vice versa.
I’m certainly not recommending everyone rush out and see Wombling Free. It’s kiddie fare and not everyone quite has the stomach for that sort of stuff. I found the film to be harmless fun that despite a few missteps ended up being cute and fairly entertaining.