Thursday, March 02, 2017

NYICFF ’17: Swallows and Amazons

The cheeky young characters of Arthur Ransome’s YA outdoors adventures were sort of like Tom, Huck, and Becky, if they had a taste for tea and crumpets. Every year, they summered in the Lake District, where they would descend into a state of Lord of the Flies barbarism, but always reverted back in time for their afternoon biscuits. They also try to foil the plans of a ruthless cell of Red Russian spies in Philippa Lowthorpe’s faithfully nostalgic adaptation of Swallows and Amazons (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Father Walker is in Hong Kong tending to the business of empire. Mrs. Walker talks stern, but she is happy to let the Walker brood run rampant, courting death unattended. John Walker is the oldest and the four and therefore supposedly the responsible one. Two girls followed and then a relentlessly bratty young brother. (FYI, the second sister is called Tatty, but her name was spelled with an “i” in the books, leading to all kinds of awkwardness for modern classroom readings).

Both the anti-social Captain Flint and the two Russian spies barged into the Walkers’ train compartment during the trip up, but Mrs. Walker pays them little mind. However, as the Walker kids explore the terrain surrounding Lake Windermere, their paths cross with those of Flint, as well as the devious Lazlow and his henchman. Initially, Flint becomes John’s nemesis, but he will eventually conclude the supposed travel writer is one of the good guys. They will also contend with the Blackett Sisters for primacy on what they like to call Walker Island. Unfortunately, the townies are better sailors than John and therefore stand a better chance of maneuvering their boat, the Amazon around the Walker’s Swallow.

It is refreshing to see a film that unambiguously identifies the Russian spies as the villains. In this case, S&A earns bonus points for casting Andrew Scott, Sherlock’s Jim Moriarty, as Lazlow. However, the tone of the film definitely skews towards the youngster end of the spectrum. Frankly, a lot of those hopelessly dated Disney films Kurt Russell made as a kid have a more mature tone than S&A.

Still, it looks great. Cinematographer Julian Court and production designer Suzie Davies give it a classy period look and texture. As a result, it is definitely more cinematic than your average PBS Masterpiece production. Scott and Kelly Macdonald also soldier on like old pros as Lazlow and Mrs. Walker.

As a junior 39 Steps, S&A will probably charm its 6-12 target demo. It might also make parents wistful for a simpler time when they could turn their grade school children loose for unsupervised overnight sailing expeditions, without anyone lecturing them on their parental judgment. Recommended for young viewers (who are never too young to learn about the clear and present Russian threat), Swallows and Amazons screens this Saturday (3/4) and Sunday the 12th, at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYICFF.