Norman Lindsay’s book “The Magic Pudding: The Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum” has been a favorite with Aussie children since it was published in 1918, partly because it celebrates Down Under flora and fauna with tremendous affection. This ambitious animated adaptation probably won’t please the book’s most ardent devotees; it makes quite a few plot changes, lacks its idiosyncratic humor and features sometimes fussy and overdone animation techniques. While not achieving the classic status to which it aspires, pic should nevertheless expect a reasonably solid theatrical release in Australia and a long life in ancillary, with overseas results much less tasty.
Peopled with koalas, wombats, kookaburras, possums and other Antipodean creatures, the beautifully illustrated book entertains parents as much as it does small fry. Lindsay is best known as a controversial artist and painter of naked, nubile women; he was featured in both John Duigan’s 1994 “Sirens,” in which Sam Neill played the artist, and in Michael Powell’s 1968 “Age of Consent,” with James Mason as the dauber.
But Lindsay also wrote this lovely story about an ebullient koala named Bunyip Bluegum who sets out to see the world and comes across landlocked sailor Bill Barnacle, penguin Sam Sawnoff and Albert, a pudding with legs and a cantankerous attitude, who can turn himself into any kind of pudding (sweet or savory) and who always replenishes himself. The villains are the Pudding Thieves, a possum and a wombat who assume a variety of disguises in their attempts to nab the tasty meal.
Adapters Harry Cripps, Greg Haddock and Simon Hopkinson have taken quite a few liberties with the material. Crucially, they’ve made no attempt to duplicate the humorous turns of phrase that make “Pudding” such a delight. And in a misguided attempt to modernize the material, they’ve beefed up the plot, abandoning Lindsay’s courtroom climax (in which he cheerfully lampooned authority figures), and instead send the nattily attired Bunyip (voiced by Geoffrey Rush) off on a quest to find his parents, who have been incarcerated in an underground cave by the monstrous wombat Buncle (Jack Thompson) — a different, quite sympathetic character in the book.Neill, working for the second time on a Lindsay-connected project, voices Sam the penguin, while Hugo Weaving is the sailor and Toni Collette is heard briefly as Bunyip’s mother, singing a schmaltzy song about maternal love. John Cleese amusingly lends voice to the bad-tempered pudding (“Shut up and eat me!”), a mysterious creation who seems to have existed forever (he was even aboard the Titanic).
Numerous uninspired songs, by Chris Harriott and Dennis Watkins, punctuate the adventures of Bunyip and the Pudding. The character drawings, which stick quite closely to the originals, are fine, and the film works best in the quieter scenes that are taken directly from the source material. All too frequently, however, needlessly overblown and garish sequences, which are at times quite difficult to watch, are allowed to swamp the proceedings.