A rare romance from the typically dark imagination of children’s book author Roald Dahl, “Esio Trot” spells more than just “tortoise” backwards, but an evening of warm-fuzzy feelings all around as Dustin Hoffman’s Mr. Hoppy devises an elaborate scheme to woo the chelonian-loving widow downstairs, as played by Judi Dench. Commissioned as a New Year’s telepic for British TV, this delightful family offering is already making its way to homevideo in several European markets, but could potentially support a more substantial treatment Stateside, if someone were to shell out for theatrical (exec producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein bought all other U.S. rights).
Judging by Hoffman and Dench’s involvement alone, this is no ordinary TV movie. Co-written by “Love Actually’s” Richard Curtis (who shares credit with Paul Mayhew-Archer) and directed by smallscreen miracle worker Dearbhla Walsh (“Little Dorrit,” “Shameless”), the film has been crafted with all the care that might go into a cinema-bound feature, but suits the tube, given its inherently small confines. Dahl’s story takes place almost entirely in an apartment building, where its two lonelyhearts, silver-haired Mr. Hoppy and redheaded Mrs. Silver (Dench), live one above the other.
For years, Mr. Hoppy’s pride and joy has been the extravagant garden he keeps on the balcony of his otherwise modestly appointed bachelor flat. Ever since the day Mrs. Silver (Dench) moved in, Mr. Hoppy has dedicated any free time he can find to tending his plants, which conveniently gives the shy old man a chance to gaze down on his upbeat new neighbor and, when he can find the courage, to exchange a few words. Oh, how he longs to tell Mrs. Silver how he truly feels! But alas, she already loves someone else: her pet tortoise, Alfie, whom she keeps on her own balcony.
Now, Mrs. Silver “never was the brightest bulb in the chandelier” (to use her own expression), and she frets that little Alfie isn’t growing fast enough. Even preschool children know that she has chosen the wrong sort of pet for that, considering that tortoises are among nature’s slowest growing creatures, not to mention that Mrs. Silver is well into her golden years already. But Mr. Hoppy, who happens to overhear her wish, has other ideas.
Wanting nothing more than to make Mrs. Silver happy, he goes out and buys 100 tortoises of every size he can find. After instructing Mrs. Silver to recite a made-up Bedouin chant (composed entirely of backwards words) which he claims will make Alfie grow faster, he constructs an elaborate rig with which to grab the little guy from her balcony and replace him with a lookalike who happens to be just a wee bit bigger, repeating the process with a different tortoise every few days. The “genius” of his plan, as chokably cheery narrator James Corden explains, is that the size differences are so small, Mrs. Silver won’t even notice that Alfie appears to be growing — until the day he can no longer fit through the door of his own hutch.
Such a fanciful courtship is easy enough to conjure in a reader’s imagination, but poses significant logistical challenges to a live-action director, which is where Walsh’s ingenuity comes into play. First, there’s all the reptile wrangling involved, plus the far trickier question of tone, which she manages to keep amusing where it so easily might have lapsed into silliness. Since Mr. Hoppy’s odd plan isn’t so obviously romantic at first, the film leans on a few well-placed Louis Armstrong tunes and tosses in a rival neighbor, the boorish Mr. Pringle (Richard Cordery), as competition.
Rather than attempt an accent, Hoffman’s character has been rewritten as American. A Brit would surely be shier, but the chemistry still works great between the two leads — legendary actors three years apart in age whom no one had previously thought to imagine as a couple — in part because they’re each playing against type: Wonderfully bombastic in other roles, Hoffman inverts that dynamic and becomes an adorably timid soul, while Dench, so often reserved as proper British characters, surprises in such an openly flirtatious part, clad in bright colors and low-cut dresses, while tapping into a daffy, Lucille Ball-like energy we didn’t know was there.
Never hip, despite mentions of Facebook statuses and “hip-hop stylings,” the script endears through its often corny sense of humor — the sort that should play well to both the very young and very old, without alienating the harder-to-please generations in between. With his constant interruptions, Corden can be a bit irritating, though the addition of an energetic narrator cleverly serves to inject some scenery into the otherwise closed-off tale. Walsh shows the young man zipping all over London, whereas Hoppy only makes it as far as the pet shop, otherwise sticking close to home — which, of course, is where British auds saw the film when the BBC aired it on New Year’s Day, and where it’s sure to get a fair amount of repeat viewing, now that it’s available to own.