In my favorite part of Neil Jordan’s 2005 film Breakfast on Pluto, the character played by Cillian Murphy gets a job at a family fun park based on the BBC’s Wombles. It’s set in the mid-seventies, when the Wombles were pop culture juggernauts. The park seems to be an invention of the movie and not a real place, but you could imagine it happening. To put their dominance into perspective, in 1974, the Wombles, with their kid-friendly songs by Mike Batt, managed more weeks on the UK Singles chart than any other pop music act.
So, in that grand tradition of striking while the iron is hot, it took three more years for a Wombles feature film to be released. It is ninety minutes long, and it feels like nine hundred and ninety.
The film stars David Tomlinson and Frances de la Tour as the parents of a young teenager played by Bonnie Langford whose lives become intertwined with the rubbish-collecting residents of Wimbledon Common. The charming stop-motion puppetry and hilarious narration by Bernard Cribbins that made the TV show so engaging and cute were discarded in favor of full-size mascot costumes and voices by David Jason and Jon Pertwee. That’s kind of all you need to know about why this film isn’t going to appeal to anybody over the age of eight, and that’s pushing it. You watch the five-minute Wombles TV episodes for the delightful puppetry and silliness from Cribbins. You watch the ninety-minute Wombles movie because you have watched everything else that’s ever been made already.
I believe that this was Langford’s film debut, and it was made between the two series of Just William, where, as the spoiled rotten Violet Elizabeth Bott, she became one of the television characters that people hated above all others. Since she was unknown to American audiences, I was baffled by the hatred that Doctor Who fans expressed when she joined the show in 1986. I didn’t like her character, Mel, when I was a teenager, but I was wrong. She’s also probably the best thing about this movie, somehow. Tomlinson and de la Tour just phoned in their performances and are completely unbelievable as actual human beings in every last scene, while their young co-star is actually making the effort.
For the under-eights, this might – might – work. I won’t pretend that our experience would be repeated in your own home, but our son, six, did enjoy the musical numbers a lot, and surprised the heck out of me with a huge and happy hug when David Tomlinson finally sees and acknowledges the Wombles. Up to then, he’d been passing by them without a second glance. In the next scene, Tomlinson is doing a choreographed dance routine with the Wombles set to the tune of their popular song “Exercise Is Good For You (Laziness Is Not),” which is not something I ever expected to see.
Chris Spedding played guitar on that song. Imagine that.
I grouse, but this can actually be looked at from another angle, and that’s how downright weird the script is. What might have been major plot points in another movie are introduced and then completely abandoned. Early on, it looks like the movie’s going to be about the Wombles getting the human family to notice them so they can stop a freeway construction across their home of Wimbledon Common. Not ten minutes later, John Junkin calls off the excavators; they intended to build at Wandsworth Common. Then there’s some business with a miracle plant formula called Womgrow. If it mixes with polluted air, it could wreak havoc, and Bungo Womble is taking it to the humans, uncapped, as a gift. Disaster looms, right? But the Womgrow doesn’t even make it to the humans and is forgotten. It’s so odd!
But while the script is built to baffle, where it’s certain to offend is with the “Japanese” neighbors. Holy anna. I thought that I was used to watching dated stereotypes in films and TV from the sixties and seventies, but this surprised even me. Bernard Spear plays “the Jap chap,” and Yasuko Nagazumi is his wife, who does not speak English and dresses in full geisha costume and makeup for a dinner party. Spear can’t pronounce his Ls, talks about kamikazes, and freaking Pink Lady and Jeff was more culturally sensitive.
In short, this is certainly one of the lousiest films we’ve watched for this blog. Fugitive Alien might have been a little worse. But you know what? I kind of liked that big hug I got when Tomlinson goes to shake Great Uncle Bulgaria’s paw. I could suffer through ninety minutes for a hug that nice from a kid so happy.