Director: Lionel Jeffries
Scorpion Releasing

The BBC’s beloved Wombles hit the big screen in actor Lionel Jeffries directorial effort WOMBLING FREE, out on DVD courtesy of Scorpion Releasing.

Wombles are furry creatures that have been cleaning up after humans all over the world since the dawn of time. The subject of a series of children’s books written by former journalist Elizabeth Beresford, the Wombles spawned a popular BBC stop-motion animation children’s show and a musical touring group created by musician Mike Batt. In their feature film outing, the Wombles of Wimbledon Court venture out daily from their burrow to collect the excessive litter of its inhabitants and “make use of bad rubbish”. Inventor Tobermory attempts to use the refuse for a miracle plant formula while cook Madame Cholet grows frustrated with the quality of food wasted by humans. Great Uncle Bulgaria has all but given up in his efforts to convince humans of the need to recycle and conserve since the Wombles cannot be seen by unbelievers. Young Bungo, however, manages to get the attention of schoolgirl Felicity (Bonnie Langford, BUGSY MALONE) but her penchant for demanding imaginary friends prevents her parents Roland Frogmorton (David Tomlinson, THE LOVE BUG) and Julia (Frances de la Tour, TV’s RISING DAMP) from taking her seriously; but belief in the Wombles may bring more to this fractured family than environmental awareness.

The biggest problem with WOMBLING FREE is not the annoying musical numbers – including one that visually spoofs several Hollywood musicals – but that it is poorly written. Child fans of the show may not care, but anyone grasping for a plot will be in for a frustrating view. The ecological message is heavy-handed (then again, it’s aimed at children), but one would think that the crux of the film would be the proposed demolition of Wimbledon Court (which would include the Wombles’ underground burrow) bringing the Wombles and the human residents together; however, five minutes later – after the Wombles have briefly considered building a burrow underneath the Buckingham Palace gardens only to be frightened away by “wolves” – the ruthless county surveyor (John Junkin, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT) drives up and tells his bulldozers that there was a mix-up. The story then turns back to the Felicity trying to convince her parents that Wombles are real. When Julia discovers this, it gives her purpose (she’s local secretary of the “Keep Britain Tidy” movement but seemingly unaware of the waste and decay of her own suburb). Father Roland is pretty much Tomlinson’s own character in Disney’s MARY POPPINS (he actually exclaims at one point “What in the name of Mary Poppins are you talking about?”), except that he actually looks embarrassed here when he dances with Wombles.

PC viewers will balk at some of the stereotypes that are fairly common in British film and television of the time. The Frogmorton’s neighbors are Japanese auto salesman Arnold Takehashi (Bernard Spear, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG!) – a white actor scrunching his eyes and pronouncing every L word with R’s and vice versa – and his wife Doris (Yasuko Nagazumi, DEADLIER THAN THE MALE) who wears kimonos and speaks no English (although Julia carries on conversations with her obliviously). They figure into a subplot in which Great Uncle Bulgaria suggests Scottish Womble Cousin Cairngorm McWomble the Terrible he let Takehashi discover his invented car that runs on clockwork rather than fuel. The greedy Takehashis of course focus more on the kitschy aspects of the vehicle (its construction out of an antique bedframe with a Victrola horn covered in Tartan like McWomble himself) and attempt to improve it with a petrol motor from a broken down lawn mower (cue offscreen crash sound effects). Takahashi also lets loose an “Oy vey!” after venting his frustration at having to translate everything his wife says at a dinner party with the Frogmortons. The ending is surprisingly a downer until a last minute hopeful twist. Adult viewers will find the film a trying experience; however, fans of Monty Python and Terry Gilliam’s brand of low budget fantasy from this period and into the 1980s will find much to admire in the photography of Alan Hume (THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) – and camera operator Alec Mills (THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS) – and imaginative makeshift “recycled” production design by Jack Shampen (TV’s THE PRISONER).

Scorpion’s interlaced, single-layer, anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer is PAL-converted (the British theatrical release ran 96:18 as opposed to the disc’s 92:30); however, it looks like the source was a new transfer rather than some of the earlier 16:9 upscales of analogue masters provided by ITV. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is fine. The sole extra is the film’s trailer (3:08). As with all ITV-licensed titles, Scorpion’s disc is Region 1-coded. (Eric Cotenas)