Swedish author Astrid Lindgren’s first story, the 1944 “Pippi Longstocking,” has inspired three generations of prepubescent girls with its focus on a strong, independent, irreverent 9-year-old, a young Nordic female version of Groucho Marx who uncannily turns rational thinking on its head. Over the years, there have been several film and TV adaptations of Pippi (most including episodes from Lindgren’s two sequels). Box office prospects look dim for newest version, an animated musical that combines bland animation, old-fashioned production design, weak faux-Broadway show-stoppers and, most serious of all, an annoying, high-pitched Pippi without the requisite archetypal qualities to do more than numbly entertain.
A joint venture of companies from three countries, $10 million pic, which includes 100,000 animation cels, will go out initially in English, French, Swedish and German.
The linear narrative, devised by Canadian-based director Clive Smith (whose considerable animation credits include the Steven Spielberg-Tim Burton series “Family Dog”) to appeal to a North American audience, is bracketed by Pippi on her captain father’s ship. Immediately following the film’s first production number, Capt. Longstocking is swept overboard during a storm, but vows from the ocean to meet his beloved only child at Villa Villekulla, their gingerbread home in a “normal” Swedish village.
This affords the ingenuous child the opportunity to live without parental supervision, creating a household (including a mangy horse and manic monkey) of unusual activity that excites the bored suburban kids next door, Tommy and Annika, and irritates the town busybody and arbiter of social behavior, Mrs. Prysselius (spoken beautifully and threateningly by Catherine O’Hara).
It also affords the community’s bumbling criminals, Thunder-Karlsson and Bloom, the chance to visit Pippi with the goal of robbing her of the bountiful gold coins she counts for absent Dad. The town’s two cops are as ineffectual at their job as the crooks are at theirs, so Pippi and Mrs. Prysselius are at the center of the ongoing battle. When her atypical father returns at film’s end and takes her back on his ship, Pippi opts to stay on dry land and enrich the lives of Tommy and Annika.
As in the original story, Pippi is “the strongest girl in the world” and a youngster without inhibitions. But the vanilla quality of her voice (Melissa Altro) and her physical appearance, particularly the huge, toothpaste-commercial smile, undermine her gifts.
The one sequence in which her uniqueness does register (possibly because the rapid montage takes the focus off Pippi herself) is a fine production number called “Pluttifikation,” by Swedish composer Anders Berglund, in which Pippi makes mincemeat of a straight-arrow teacher. The other outstanding tune is Toronto-based group Thinkmusic’s “A Bowler and a New Gold Tooth,” sung by the two would-be robbers while they imagine what they will do when their ship comes in.