Tykes won’t care, but their parents (at least in Blighty) will wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to call it “The Magic Roundabout.” The pumped-up CGI toon was inspired by the cult British TV series of the ’60s and ’70s. Handsomely animated Anglo-French co-production — using the same software technology, Softimage, behind Pixar’s successes — yank Dougal, Dylan, Ermintrude and other beloved characters out of their cozy world into a whiz-bang “Lord of the Rings”-like yarn that’s easy enough eye-candy for kids up to 8. Many more, however, are likely to watch this at home on ancillary.
“Roundabout” (Britspeak for “Carousel”) was a unique cultural phenom that’s essentially un-updatable. Series of five-minute shows began on B&W French TV in 1964 (as “Le manege enchante”), created by the late Serge Danot and animated, in obvious stop-motion, by English toonster Ivor Wood.
When the BBC bought it for U.K. children’s TV, actor Eric Thompson (father of thesp Emma) was assigned to do the English commentary — all voices were supplied by the show’s off-screen narrator — but Thompson ditched the French scripts and made up his own character names and slyly cod-philosophical stories to fit the images. The series grew into a cult success with 500-plus episodes, attracting an adult following on the back of the Swingin’ ’60s vibe. Thompson also supplied the voices for a feature version, “Dougal and the Blue Cat” (1970).
Reviving this curious cultural bifurcation as a feature for the 21st century clearly presented major challenges, not least in coming up with a story that would fit both English and Gallic auds’ different expectations. Instead of the charming vignettes that fueled the original series, scripters have gone — probably wisely — for a sword-and-sorcery tale of international appeal, decorated (at least in the English-voiced version caught) with plenty of local jokes and puns.
Richly envisioned tale starts in the Enchanted Village — a kind of Mittel-Europa burg via an English hamlet — under the guardianship of Zebedee (voiced by Ian McKellen), a wizard with a bedspring for legs. Young Florence (Kylie Minogue, not entirely suppressing her Aussie accent) is enjoying a summer’s day with her sweet-toothed mutt Dougal (Robbie Williams). Also present are wannabe opera-diva Ermintrude the cow (Joanna Lumley), spaced-out rabbit Dylan (Bill Nighy) and soppy snail Brian (Jim Broadbent), who has the hots for Ermintrude.
Alas, after being encased in ice for 10,000 years, up bounces Zeebad (Tom Baker), a vaudevillian villain who’s Zebedee’s evil double, and he freezes over the village’s magic carousel, along with Florence and her human chums on it. Zeebad threatens to start another Ice Age, and the only solution, says Zebedee, is to stop Zeebad from finding three magic diamonds that would give him absolute power. (Hello, Tolkien fans.)
After thoughtfully conjuring up a Magic Train (Lee Evans), that’s a mini version of Thomas the Tank Engine, Zebedee leads the merry band into the snow-covered mountains to take on Zeebad.
The only way to get some entertainment out of the picture is to forget the original series and yield to its generic, all-purpose flavor: How a Dumb Dog, Hippy Rabbit, Operatic Cow and Dopey Snail Saved the World on a Motormouth Train. Though most of the voices are Brits’, pic’s visual style is thoroughly U.S. big studio. Re-voicing with Yank talent would better equip the film for North America, where Miramax is mulling release under the title “Sprung!”
Nighy is perfect voice casting for the comatose Dylan, Baker eats up the hissable role of Zeebad, and Lumley has fun with Ermintrude. But overall, the dialogue engenders smiles (and frequent groans) rather than real laughs, with no zing to the patter.
Still, as a purely visual rollercoaster, pic delivers the goods for undiscriminating anklebiters, with plenty of incident and smoothly wrought 3-D digital animation by French technicians. Creative team is led by Marseilles-based Jean Duval, a Disney Europe alum, and Brits Frank Passingham (d.p. for Aardman — “Chicken Run”) and Dave Borthwick (founder of Bolex Brothers — “The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb”). Original songs by Andrea Remanda are OK, in poppy style.
French version, released Feb. 2 as “Pollux! Le manege enchante” (Pollux Being Dougal), features an equally heavyweight voice cast, including Vanessa Paradis, Michel Galabru, Gerard Jugnot, Valerie Lemercier and Eddy Mitchell. English version goes out wide in the U.K. Feb. 11.