A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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?”

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December 23, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,

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