The ‘Ship’s Boy’ Roger is one of few saving graces in what is at best a Christmas week switch-off, and at worst a fumbling voyage of naivety that is at times hard to watch.
Philippa Lowthorpe, who was decorated by Bafta for her helming of period drama Call the Midwife, was lucky to be able to show off a Lake District vibrant with blues and greens and a clutch of grown-ups picked from near the upper echelons of British acting. The children, however, who would be required to carry the story, left a lot to be desired.
The first adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s classic novel was made in 1974, a charming little picture that was as much playtime as it was adventure. The child actors were about as wooden as the boat they sailed in (the Swallow), but they had an innocent appeal that was free of the inhibitions apparently inflicted on their successors. The plot built consistently and convincingly in the 90 minutes and managed to project smiles onto its audiences despite its simplicity. Our remake, by contrast, tries far too hard to fit in with the high-octane excitement of modern cinema.
Yes, I know, it is for all intents and purposes a film directed at children, and had it been broadcast on CBBC in the ’90s, we might have smiled and relinquished a “good job”. But in a landscape filled with fertile filmmaking which transcends generations, this film had a wonderful opportunity to stand up amongst the superheroes, cartoons, and goofy pre-pubescent flicks, proud of its old-fashioned adventurousness.
Sadly though, the ember never caught, and Lowthorpe’s sailing story flounders in the shallows. While the decision to ham up the suspicion surrounding Uncle Jim (Rafe Spall) and his houseboat was a brave one, pulling the seductively villainous Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Sherlock) into the fray, its addition to the story only served to muddy the already murky waters. Like so many over-ambitious projects, there were far too many strands to cling onto and the cast struggled with it perhaps even more than the audience.
I grew up on a diet of Toy Story and the original Swallows and Amazons. As I sat down with my whole family after Christmas, expectations were high and we all looked forward to our return to Wildcat Island. Unfortunately, the twenty-first century has left its mark and our foray into familiar waters was tainted by modernity. My father, who would have been ten when the original film was released, described this new version rather generously as wholesome family fun. We all agreed that it will not stand up to repeated viewings and we’d gladly, and far sooner, return to the original.
By all means watch it if it’s raining, your judgment is clouded by flu and you have nothing better to do, but if you’re expecting a jolly jaunt reminiscent of the original, just go ahead and watch it instead.
Watch the trailers for both the 1974 and 2016 versions below.