Tales of Beatrix Potter is one of British cinema’s true one-offs, a film quite unlike any other. Ostensibly aimed at children, this adaptation of Potter’s various animal-centric stories was mounted by the Royal Ballet and choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton. The tales are rendered as a series of dances, loosely interconnected by the author as a young girl (played by Erin Geraghty) and her active imagination. There are no words, only music and movement as the performers of the Royal Ballet - in full animal costume - interpret her stories’ simple narratives.
The ballet film had existed previously, notably three directed by Paul Czinner in the 1950s and 60s - The Bolshoi Ballet (1957), The Royal Ballet (1958) and Romeo and Juliet (1966, from the Prokofiev ballet) - although these were more records of performances as opposed to a genuine integration of the forms. Similarly ballet had existed in narrative cinema, most famously in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and the dance which concludes An American in Paris. Yet whilst each may provide lengthy sequences devoted entirely to ballet - sixteen minutes in the case of the latter, almost twenty in the former - they remain, for want of a better word, set pieces. However, mention of The Red Shoes is important as it was edited by Reginald Mills, director of Tales of Beatrix Potter, and so the influence was no doubt heavily felt. Indeed, Mills also served on many of the Archers’ other films, including their other ballet film, The Tales of Hoffman, and the delightfully artificial operetta Oh… Rosalinda!! (the dual exclamation marks hinting at just how heightened that film was).
Tales of Beatrix Potter was to be Mills’ only feature as director (he would later make a 53-minute documentary on another of his collaborators, Franco Zeffirelli) thereby making it all the more tantalising to see this film in connection with his work with the Archers. Certainly, it may not reach the baroque highs of The Red Shoes or The Tales of Hoffman, but then given the source it has no reason to. Rather what we have is a handsomely mounted production with an added emphasis on the visual. Austin Dempster served as director of photography and provides a classy sheen to proceedings, neither too muted nor too extravagant, instead finding a satisfying middle ground which works well with both the exterior sequences filmed in the Lake District and those captured within the studio. The latter also come to life thanks to Christine Edzard’s set designs. The sequence in which a sextet of mice performs in a vestibule before a massive open door is perfectly realised. Those who have seen Edzard’s subsequent films as director - specifically her epic 1987 adaptation of Little Dorrit and 1990’s The Fool - will no doubt see traces of her ability to really mount an impressive environment within which these narratives can breathe.
Edzard’s costume designs can be a little more problematic, however. Taken out of context, some scenes in isolation (via a sample on YouTube, for example) may suggest that Tales of Beatrix Potter is being wilfully bizarre or even chasing a cult following. I don’t believe this to be true - and, moreover, I believe that Edzard’s designs were a sincere attempt at transposing Potter’s characters into live-action form whilst maintaining freedom for the dancers. But the inexpressive nature of the faces, and the fact that this kind of thing isn’t seen on the big screen too often, does provoke an element of strangeness. (Although, to counter this I would state that a better job has been done than in, say, the 1972 musical Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its assortment of creatures and animals.) Of course, had Tales of Beatrix Potter been animated then such considerations wouldn’t need to be taken into account. Indeed, the lineage back to Disney’s Silly Symphonies and Fantasia would be all the more apparent - after all, this film is effectively doing something very similar in its approach - and as such it perhaps wouldn’t feel so strange.
This oddness is perhaps the crux of Tales of Beatrix Potter and how audiences approach it. Its gentle pace, lack of narration (or any words for that matter) and simple reliance on its most fundamental elements (the dance, the visual splendour) makes it seem almost like an arthouse movie nowadays as opposed to a children’s film. One wonders how different it must seem now to a kid brought up on manic Saturday morning television - all quickfire edits, knowing winks and garish colours. Yet clearly the appeal does remain as this 40th anniversary Blu-ray release testifies. Surely Optimum’s old DVD release must have shifted the units in order to justify the HD upgrade. And, of course, the Royal Ballet continues to this day to put on new stage productions based around Ashton’s original choreography.
For an alternate look at the film, please see Eamonn's review of the earlier Optimum release here.
Optimum are releasing Tales of Beatrix Potter as a ‘double play’ edition, in other words as a dual-format release containing both Blu-ray and standard definition DVD. As with their previous DVD (from 2006) there are no extras, just the film itself. The upgrade to HD is generally pleasing especially when it comes to the soundtrack, here present in LPCM Stereo format. The film retains its 1.66:1 aspect ratio and has been restored for this release. As such both sound and image are crisp and clear with few signs of dirt or damage. Austin Dempster’s photography comes off well with particularly strong reds and greens, but always in line with the original sober palette. Grain is fairly minimal, which combined with a slight softness to the image, suggests that some tweaking has taken place. It’s by no means detrimental - side-effects such as artefacting and edge-enhancement aren’t noticeable - and the clarity remains such that the wires in the scene in which Jemima Puddleduck flies are highly prominent. As such not a fantastic presentation, but also by no means a poor one. As should be expected for a film without dialogue, optional subtitles are not present.
Tales of Beatrix Potter is one of British cinema’s true one-offs, a film quite unlike any other. Ost...