STORIES FROM A FLYING TRUNK (1979)

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Oscar nominee Christine Edzard (Little Dorrit) followed up the success of the ballet-film Tales of Beatrix Potter by writing and directing this rather odd but weirdly fascinating movie, a modern interpretation of three of Hans Christian Andersen’s best-loved fairy tales, which culminates in a surreal but rather wonderful performance by dancers from The Royal Ballet dressed up as garden vegetables.

Made in 1979, it’s hard to imagine what kind of audience Edzard was pitching to, and it’s the dark undertones and sometimes sinister old-fashionedness of the film that proves its undoing.

The first story – The Kitchen – is all about household objects which come to life in rather jerky stop-motion and argue amongst themselves before a plastic bag lands on the kitchen table, launches into a pirouette and inspires the objects to forget their misgivings and join in the dance. It’s a nice idea that doesn’t really work, and the voices of the household objects (particularly the posh tea pot with her memories of India and the wicker basket that talks like a shop steward) don’t really help matters.

The second story – The Little Match Girl – is interesting but problematic for a whole set of different reasons. It follows a little Asian girl as she wanders the streets of London (at some pitch-black hour of the night – what were her parents thinking?) in search of the Queen. On the way, she meets a rather creepy tramp and his cat and lights up matches so that she can admire the different buildings and monuments. Eventually, she finds a living statue of Queen Victoria who invites her to tea, but by the time day breaks events have taken a rather depressing turn.

Little Ida is the final story and by far the best when a posse of garden vegetables (more stop motion) converges on Covent Garden to stage a ballet. The stop motion sequence lasts far too long, but the film finally comes to life when the vegetables ramble on stage and transform into human dancers, performing a ballet that was designed by the legendary Frederick Ashton (who also choreographed Edzard’s Tales of Beatrix Potter). The dancing is magical, the costumes are superb, and the film finally begins to come to life.

There is a wraparound story involving Hans Christian Andersen (Murray Melvin, The Devils) flying into London on his trunk and mumbling about the importance of imagination. Melvin’s a fine actor but he doesn’t have much to do, and whenever his character briefly appears in-between stories he seems less like a well-loved children’s storyteller and more like The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Still, the central message that imagination is underrated and vegetables and teacups can talk and dance if we’ll only let ourselves believe it is a great theme to hang a children’s film on. It’s just a pity about the execution.

Overall, Stories from a Flying Trunk is too gloomy and pondering to hold the attention of its target audience. Its forays into the dark side (especially The Little Match Girl) are also pretty disquieting, although the updated story is more or less faithful to Andersen’s original vision. But the ballet sequences in the final segment are definitely worth waiting for, and if Stories from a Flying Trunk had concentrated on dance in the same way as Tales of Beatrix Potter did, it could have been exceptional. In the final evaluation, Edzard’s film should be applauded for its playful sense of reinvention, but it’s really a museum piece (and probably felt out of date even when it was first released). Having said that, it’s an interesting failure and very worth watching for curiosity value alone.

STORIES FROM A FLYING TRUNK (1979) / CERT: U / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: CHRISTINE EDZARD / STARRING: MURRAY MELVIN, ANN FIRBANK, TASNEEM MAQSOOD, JOHN TORDOFF / RELEASE DATE: JANUARY 18TH

 


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