Bringing a legit sensibility to a children’s classic, “Masterpiece Theater’s” latest take on “The Wind in the Willows” forgoes animatronics or expensive makeup, instead relying on a talented cast and the viewer’s imagination to convey the notion of anthropomorphic toads, badgers, moles and weasels. Anchored by Matt Lucas’ irrepressible, Pee-wee Herman-like performance as Mr. Toad — the speed-happy proprietor of Toad Hall — it is, indeed, a wild, mostly charming and utterly family-oriented ride.
Betraying its early-20th century moorings, Toad has become completely obsessed with motorcars, so much so that when deprived of the chance to zoom about in one, auto theft seems like a perfectly reasonable alternative. His behavior is a puzzle to the quiet Mole (Lee Ingleby), laid-back Ratty (Mark Gattis) and snarling Badger (Bob Hoskins), who fear that preoccupation must be curbed before real harm is done.
Set against a lush, bucolic countryside (shot in Bucharest, Romania), Toad’s exploits involving trains, planes and automobiles eventually lead to his incarceration and escape in drag (he is, after all, a British toad), before he and his friends must retake Toad Hall from a pack of scheming weasels.
Director Rachel Talalay has brought an extremely low-tech approach to the material, with nothing more than a prosthetic nose or exaggerated eyebrows to designate the characters’ animal correlation. This is especially bold in the personage of Toad, who with his bald head and maniacal laugh plays like a cross between Humpty-Dumpty and Uncle Fester — periodically bursting into catchy little songs, which Lucas (a comedian seen in “Casanova”) belts out with the same infectious gusto he brings to the role in general.
Even at less than 90 minutes, the whole thing hits some flat stretches (Disney’s much-beloved animated 1949 featurette ran a mere 35 minutes), but it’s all good fun as well as a refreshingly different look for “Masterpiece.” The only quibble is that this movie should be scheduled at an earlier hour when more kids might be apt to tune in, inasmuch as “Wind’s” appeal should run the demographic gamut for PBS, from “Sesame Street” to “Bleak House.”