A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 298 – The Box of Delights

The Box of Delights – December 23rd, 2010

When we planned this little mini-project, with twelve days of Christmas movies, I knew exactly which day I wanted to watch this on. It is, hands down, my favorite Christmas movie out of all of our regulars. I’ve been watching it at least once a year at Christmas time since I was a kid. We first saw it on our local PBS and fell in love with it instantly. The next year they showed it again and we thought to tape it, but it was an edited version, only two hours long instead of almost three. Such a disappointment. We cherished our somewhat illicit tape, watching it once a year only, to keep it from wearing out. And well into my adulthood, with eBay and Amazon and the like making it easier to find such things, I located an NTSC copy of the full version and snapped it right up. And so tonight, for my birthday, I am watching the full version of my favorite Christmas movie, in excellent condition, while making cookies with my mother. All in all, the perfect way to spend a Christmasy birthday evening.

You might not have heard of this one. I’ve met people who have, but most of them are from the UK. It’s just not as well known around here. It’s based on a children’s novel by John Masefield and is a rollicking adventure about a magical box and an evil sorcerer bent on getting it and Christmastime and mythology. There’s some stuff with King Arthur and Herne the Hunter. There’s a trip back in time and demons and robberies and kidnappings. It’s a highly unusual story, and I love it thoroughly.

Having read the book this is based on, I can say with some authority that it’s very true to it. There are some things changed, but they were minor enough that they made little impact on me and I honestly can’t say what they are. Some additional description, probably. Some more magical stuff. But from what I recall it cleaves very closely to the book. Which is fantastic, because the book is a ton of fun too.

I’m going to attempt to explain the plot here, but I warn that I am quite certain I won’t be able to truly impart the charm this movie has. Please just believe me on that point. Kay Harker, a boy returning home for the holidays from school, meets a Punch and Judy man who turns out to be the keeper of a magical box that allows one to fly, shrink and go inside of it to have magical adventures in fantasy lands and the past. The evil sorcerer Abner Brown, whom Kay has dealt with in the past, is trying to get his hands on the box, but the Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings, gives it to Kay. Abner and his gang – masquerading as the staff and students of a theological college near Kay’s home – kidnap (or ‘scrobble’ as the movie puts it) person after person to try and figure out who has the box. He takes Hawlings. He takes Kay’s governess, Caroline Louisa. He takes clergyman after clergyman, believing that since the local cathedral is planning its 1000th Christmas mass and won’t be able to run it without the local clergy, someone will step forward and give over the box in order to save the big celebration. Kay and his friends, a family of children who are staying with him for the holidays, have to find out what’s going on and stop Abner and his gang and rescue all their prisoners – including the clergymen – before midnight mass on Christmas.

Throughout the course of the movie Kay has many adventures. The villains in the movie are characterized as wolves and the phrase used to warn that there’s villainy about is that the wolves are running. Kay helps Arthur fight them off and defend a caste. He learns about them from Herne the Hunter. He shrinks down and talks to a mouse living in the walls of his home and he goes into the past to try and find the creator of the box and ask him to come forward in time and take it back with him so people will stop fighting over it. And the movie ends with Kay, stuck tiny because he’s lost the box, riding around in Abner’s pant cuff in secret, helping free prisoners and learning all about Abner’s devious plot.

The movie features plenty of wonderful shots of the British countryside (the movie was filmed mostly in Worcestershire), both green and covered in snow. Kay and his friends have a grand time, even though there’s clearly some nasty stuff going on and the stakes are rather high. The story is set in the mid 1930s and it’s got a fantastic period feel. We (being my mother and myself, specifically) especially love some of the language used, like scrobble, splendiforous, and the purple pim. The last is used as an exclamation, as in “Being scrobbled really is the purple pim!” We use it all the time and laugh whenever we do.

The adults you see a significant amount of are Abner and his gang (Patricia Quinn plays one of them, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, with relish) and Cole Hawlings. Abner is played by Robert Stephens, and he has this wonderful delivery for his lines. Sure, in any other movie it would be scenery chewing, but it’s perfect here and same for Patricia Quinn. The kids playing Kay and his friends are fine, but really the stand out is Joanna Dukes as the spitfire Maria (she’s been expelled from four boarding schools and the headmistresses still swoon when they hear her name). I love Maria. But then there’s Cole Hawlings, the mysterious old man who gave Kay the box in the first place. He’s played by a familiar name to anyone who knows Doctor Who: Patrick Troughton. You might not recognize him under the wild hair and bushy beard, but he does a magnificent job with the role.

If you are at all interested in seeing this, and I hope anyone reading this will be, I would encourage you to see if you can find the full version. There’s about 40 minutes more material and while there are some “comedic” bits with a foolish police constable who doesn’t believe Kay, there are also some extra bits of magic and time travel and conversations and it’s well worth it. And, well, if you can’t find the long version do the short version anyhow. It’s worth it too. I truly love this movie and I’ve loved it for years. There is nothing else like it and it’s not really Christmas for me until I’ve seen it. There are some fantastic bits of animation and a whole lot of adventures and evil plots and magic. All to stop a villain from getting his hands on a magical box and to save Christmas (just ignore the cop-out ending). An odd combination to be certain, but a wonderful one. Splendiforous, even.

December 23, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Box of Delights

December 23, 2010

Box of Delights

1984 was a great year for Christmas movies apparently. Yesterday we reviewed the 1984 adaptation of A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott, and today we review the BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s Box of Delights, which came out that same year. I talked yesterday about how professional and impressive A Christmas Carol was – how little it looked like a made for television production. This is the other side of the scale: a made-for-TV movie that clearly shows it. The production values here are what I am accustomed from the BBC in the Eighties, reminding me a great deal of my days watching the old Doctor Who. Which is appropriate due to the delightful presence of Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor, as the elderly Punch and Judy man in this movie.

There is much that is familiar to me as a long time anglophile about this story and setting. This is a tale of English schoolchildren having a supernatural adventure during the winter holidays. Kay Harker has returned home to his manor at Seekings, where he is in the care of his guardian Caroline Louisa. The truth of the matter is that young master Kay pretty much has the run of the place. Visiting him for the holidays are the “Blessed Joneses” Peter, Maria, Jemima, and Susan: four siblings about Kay’s age. On the way home Kay encounters an elderly Punch and Judy performer who claims to date from pagan times and who warns Kay that “the wolves are running.”

So begins a splendiferous magical adventure. Cole Hawlings, the Punch and Judy man, is in possession of a magic box which a number of seedy individuals are attempting to steal. The box of delights holds all sorts of mystical power. It will allow you to go swift, or to go small. Inside it contains wonders and visions. The nefarious sorcerer Abner Brown wants the box so that he may sell it back to Cole in exchange for the secret to eternal life, and so he uses his minions (a nasty spying rat, a pair of crooks named Joe and Charles, and Kay’s old governess the witch Sylvia Daisy Pouncer) to steal and scrobble and ransack the pleasant English countryside in search of it.

This is an ambitious production. The version we’re watching is a single three hour movie, but originally it was broadcast as six episodes. Over the course of his adventures Kay travels into the past to hunt wolves in the pagan English countryside at the side of Roman centurions. He travels with Herne the Hunter in the form of a deer and goose and trout. He flies and shrinks. He befriends a talking mouse and escapes from pirate rats. The technology of the day, and the restraints of the BBC budget mean that most of the time the effects look pretty laughable. There is a lot of chroma-key compositing and your usual BBC cardboard sets. The rats and mouse are slap-dash costumes. There is a lot of pretty good hand-drawn animation as well, which contrasts oddly with the live action bits. As Kay travels in time he flies through cardboard models of different time periods. It’s the kind of BBC special effects I’m well used to from my youth, and I really don’t mind the necessity to suspend my disbelief to enjoy the adventure.

It struck me as we watched this tonight that it’s an odd sort of Christmas movie. It does culminate in a joyous millennial mass at the local cathedral, but all of Kay’s dealings with the Romans and with Cole, who comes from pagan times, and with Hearne, act to stress to me how young a religion Christianity is, and how it’s only in the last couple millennia that it has forced itself upon the world. Still, it is very much a Christmas tradition with us to watch this movie. We love the cast, the “special” effects, the overall British feel of the whole thing. It makes me grin and laugh in the face of the stress and chaos of the Christmas season. “Ha, ha, what?”

December 23, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment