The Water Babies

Director: Lionel Jeffries
James Mason, Bernard Cribbins, Tommy Pender, Billie Whitelaw

I've made a lot of observations about society over the years on this web site, and I think I'll make another one right now. If you ask me, children in this day and age are missing out on some of the things I found pleasurable as a child several decades ago. Children today don't know what it's like to feel the wind rush through your hair as they ride a bike down a steep street without a helmet. And they don't know the pleasures of scrambling around an extremely high jungle gym in their schoolyard during lunch hour. Okay, maybe some changes are for the better, but I still stay firm that some changes towards children have just been worse. For example, take the family film - specifically Hollywood animated Hollywood family films. It seems that for the most part one animated Hollywood family film after another has been designed to more or less do one thing - tickle the funny bone. I am so tired of almost all modern Hollywood animated family movies being comedies. Why not try another angle for a change? But there is also something else about most modern animated movies - from almost any country - that I don't like. And that is the fact that almost all of these animated movies are computer generated. Sure, I see that computer animation can do a lot of things that hand drawn animation can't, like some extremely complex visuals. But when I see a hand drawn animated effort, I more see the great effort the animation team made on the piece of work. Hand drawn animation to me also has elegance and a charm that you often can't see in most of those soulless computer generated animated films.

Give me a choice between seeing a hand drawn animated movie and a computer generated animated movie, more likely than not I will pick the old fashioned effort. But having made that statement, I feel I should also add that hand drawn animated movies have not always been so pleasing and perfect to me. Starting around the 1960s and lasting through the early part of the 1980s, it was often dark days for the animation industry. Animation by then was starting to get expensive, and there were no computers available to help cheapen the process. (I don't mind computers assisting hand drawn animation, strange as that might sound after my rant in the above paragraph.) So drastic measures had to be implemented, such as using rough-line techniques coming from Xeroxing rough draft images that gave the finished animation a "sketchy" appearance, making the end results look less polished and less expensive than animation a few decades earlier. Also, for some reason, the color scheme of animated movies started to wear away considerably. During this period, you will find a lot of animated movies that look quite dull and subdued instead of having bright colors common to animated movies just a few decades ago. But there were other problems coming out of animated movies of this period. One of them was that the stories and characters started to get, quite frankly, really strange. If you read my reviews of the animated movies Hugo The Hippo, Pinocchio In Outer Space, and Raggedy Ann And Andy: A Musical Adventure, you'll get a sample as to how bizarre animated movies got during these animation dark days.

But let me get back to how makers of animated movies from the 1960s to the 1980s had to cope with animation getting expensive and with no computers to help cut down the cost. There was one additional method some animation filmmakers used to deal with the cost of animation, and that The Water Babieswas the use of live action footage. One of the most notorious users of this method was Ralph Bakshi. He used live action footage in several ways for his movies. For example, in Wizards, he tinted and recolored live action footage to try and make it look like it was hand drawn animation. In The Lord Of The Rings, he filmed actors and then had his animators rotoscope the footage, essentially tracing the live action footage. Of course, Bakshi's technique had many people even today asking what was the point of doing any animation if you had that live action footage. Anyway, since Bakski's movies are pretty well known, I didn't feel it appropriate to review any as an example of using live action footage with animation. So I decided instead to review The Water Babies, which uses this method in a different manner - namely by pretty much separating the live action footage from the animation footage. The events of the movie take place in the mid 19th century in England, where we get to meet the young boy Tommy (played by Tommy Pender), who is under the thumb of the adult Grimes (James Mason, Murder By Decree), forcing Tommy to clean chimneys. Not only is Grimes abusive toward Tommy, he also has larceny in his heart, and one day decides to steal valuable from a mansion while Tommy is cleaning the chimney. Grimes is discovered stealing by the owners of the mansion, but he manages to pin the crime on Tommy. Tommy panics and runs away, and jumps into a river while he is evading the authorities. Tommy then in short notice finds himself hand drawn in an animated underwater world where he makes friends with the talking local sea life, such as a lobster, a swordfish, and a possibly gay sea horse. It seems like paradise for a short while, but soon Tommy pines for returning to the surface world. He is told by his sea friends that he must start a quest to find some mysterious sea creatures known as the Water Babies, because they will be able to take him to the Kraken, a powerful figure that can make dreams come true. But the Water Babies are threatened by a mean shark and his cronies, which promises to make Tommy's quest much harder than he thought.

Normally when I review a movie, when I am looking at specific elements within it, I try to look at them as a whole instead of a specific section of the movie. However, with The Water Babies having a live action section as well as an animated section, it seems more appropriate to see how the movie's elements compare in both sections. I'll start off by looking at the characters and storytelling in both sections, with the live action section first. The live action beginning of the movie before the animated section goes on for some time (more than a third of the running time), so it should come as no surprise that there is quite a bit of padding here, such as showcasing the carnivals and markets of London (and then the Yorkshire countryside) for no real other purpose. Also, when Tommy is later fleeing from the authorities, the chase is another excuse for extending the running time considerably. The lack of story here might have been overlooked if we had some interesting characters doing and saying interesting things, but alas, we don't get this. We learn almost nothing about the young Tommy apart from that he's an orphan. He doesn't say too much, what he does say generally makes him to be some kind of a dope. For example, when he meets Elly (Samantha Gates), a young girl residing in the mansion, about the best he can say is, "That's a very good name. Very classy." Also, the two children spend so little time together before Tommy has to flee, it later seems strange why Tommy is obsessed about being reunited with Elly. As for the evil Grimes, he is pretty much a washout as well. He just half-heartedly subjects Tommy to physical or mental abuse, spouts "Perish the thought," and other failed attempts at flowery dialogue, and creates no sparks with his adult partner in larceny (Cribbins, The Railway Children), who simply just follows Grimes' commands and shows no unique personality.

Getting back to the story in this live-action portion, I would like to add that before Tommy is whisked away into the underwater animation world, his predicament of being accused of a crime is diffused by other characters, so that no one in the audience will feel that he will be at risk once he eventually returns to the live action world. But once Tommy jumps into the water and starts his animated undersea adventures, the screenplay gives us a number of new script problems. For starters, even child viewers will get a strong whiff of the classic family movie The Wizard of Oz. Youthful hero Tommy (Dorothy) starts a journey in this magical kingdom (Oz) with his dog (Toto) so he can find help to get home to his world (Kansas), being joined by three companions (the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion) along the way. When he meets the Kraken (the Wizard), he is told that he must kill the evil shark (the Wicked Witch) before the Kraken will grant him his wish. It's not just bad that the story doesn't feel all that original, but the characters within this retelling are appallingly weak. The underwater characters really lack warmth. The lobster, the first character to join Tommy, is given a rough Scottish accent and attitude. The swordfish becomes tiresome with his endless spouting of French words and phrases, and don't get me started on the weirdly effeminate sea horse. Not only that, the screenplay doesn't really give out any real explanation as to why these characters decide to join Tommy on his quest. Nor for that matter does the writing go into depth about the evil shark character and why he is terrorizing the underwater kingdom. And believe it or not, while the movie is titled The Water Babies, the title characters not only just appear for a few minutes of the total running time, they really do next to nothing to advance the plot or influence the surrounding characters.

While the script for The Water Babies is certainly equally as weak with the live action portion and the animated portion, things are made a lot worse with the direction of both portions by Lionel Jeffries (The Railway Children). The movie starts off with some promise, promising a dark look of 19th century English life, from rampant filth to shots of babies being breastfed out in the open. But in short notice the audience will sense things don't feel right. The movie is cold without being breathtaking or creepy. There is also a strange staged feeling to much of the movie, as if what we are seeing was quickly set-dressed and choreographed before photography started. It's made worse that Jeffries seemingly was more often than not content to simply point the camera towards what was going on rather than being more creative and exciting. It's not much better when the movie moves to the animation portion. Knowing that the movie was made in the 1970s and used an animation house located behind the Iron Curtain (Poland), I was able to forgive the animation for not being extremely smooth and using cost-cutting techniques like plain backgrounds and reusing animation. And I admit there were a few animated moments that clearly showed some real effort, such as when hundreds of bubbles are moving about. However, I was really surprised that the colors were extremely bland, and their dreary hues really bog things down. Not only that, the designs of some of the characters (like the lobster) look clunky and/or grotesque at times, and this ugliness further ruins any chance of the movie having some visual appeal. I feel I should say that my critique of The Water Babies comes from an adult perspective. Knowing how children can be forgiving of many shortcomings in a family movie, there is a chance some of them may find this particular family movie to be decent entertainment. Though honestly, I think those particular children would be not much older than babies.

(Posted May 29, 2023)

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See also: Hugo The Hippo, Pinocchio In Outer Space, Raggedy Ann And Andy