Into the classics by the reel route

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Victoria Neumark chooses her top 20 screen treatments of great moments in fiction


With the voice of Robin Williams

Disney Pounds 11.99. U. Ages up to 16

87 minutes

The movie that launched Disney back into the stratosphere of classic animation. Though many dispute its claim to have the first feminist Disney heroine (in the fierce yet winsome Princess Jasmine), Robin Williams's manic genie is a tour de force, all the more amazing for being filtered through an animated blue cloud. The classic tale is augmented by some catchy tunes and the evil duo of Jafar the vizier and Iago the parrot.

Asterix and the Twelve Tasks

20th Century Fox Pounds 10.99. U. Ages 6-13

82 minutes

Any Asterix book or video is good value. This one, with its pastiches of the 12 labours of Hercules, is one of the wittiest, taking on the mythology and nationalism of ancient history. Tremendous energy characterises Uderzo's drawings and tremendous invention characterises Goscinny's narratives, with wonderful cod Roman names, such as Cacofonix the Bard. A useful corrective to too much Disney.


CIC Pounds 14.99. U. Ages 3-12

89 minutes

Dick King-Smith's oddball but charming comic novel, Babe: The Sheep-Pig, became last year's box-office smash hit. Its richly deserved success was due partly to the wiles of computer-programmers, who gave speech to Fly the sheepdog and the matronly sheep, but also to the brilliantly taciturn performance of James Cromwell as the lonely farmer who trains Babe (or the 48 piglets reportedly used in the filming) to herd sheep with kindness. What matter, then, that cast is American and the location Australian? Strangely enough, even the wise-cracking Brooklyn-speaking duck seems to reinforce the story's eccentric Englishness.


Warner Brothers Pounds 14.99. 15

Ages: probably wouldn't harm anyone over 10

121 minutes

Tim Burton's first Batman effort is still his most striking, no doubt partly because Jack Nicholson turns in one of his definitive "I am absolutely crackers" performances but also because of the haunting, dark setting of Gotham City. Though there is no woman as beautiful as Michelle Pfeiffer (spine-tingling as Catwoman in the successor Batman Returns) the dark humour and gizmos are visually fascinating, while the plot seems to revel in its arbitrary twists and turns and senseless suspense. Comic-book fans can get a lot of fun out of comparing the original with the early TV series (also available on video) and with the later, inferior, Batman Forever (with Nicole Kidman) and the most recent, disastrous, Batman and Robin.

Beauty and the Beast

Disney Pounds 13.99. U. Ages up to 12

81 minutes

Absolutely tip-top Disney classic which revels in its visual ingenuity and musical pizzazz. Has there ever been a number as stunningly ingenious and infectious as "Be My Guest", when all the household utensils welcome Beauty to the house of the Beast? The Beast, too, is thrillingly menacing and pathetic by turns and Beauty, though stereotypically coy, shows a spark of feistiness. OK, so it's melodramatic, but so is the original fairy tale, and the moral can stand repetition: true beauty lies within.

Chronicles of Narnia

BBC Four tapes Pounds 10.99 each.U. Ages 5-12

120 minutes each

The successful Sunday teatime dramas do not replace, but enhance, the much-loved CS Lewis originals. Though the series, as it progresses from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn-Treader and The Silver Chair, compresses the originals, and though the animatronic lion is less awe-inspiring than the Aslan of one's imagination, the high production values, terrific acting (especially the White Witch) and the immense power and pace of the plots still absorb children - and adults. The overt Christianity and middle-class world view which Lewis represented is filtered in this version: a gain to many.


Carolco Pounds 10.99. PG. Ages 11-16

130 minutes

This Mel GibsonGlenn Close production is much shorter than the newer Kenneth Branagh one. Both are fresh, invigorating versions, but Branagh's (Castle Rock Pounds 12.99 PG) is less accessible, though it may be favoured for those working towards literature exams. Picky adults might feel that Gibson does not exactly appear "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought", but his action-hero image transforms our idea of Hamlet. Shakespeare's text can survive any number of interpretations: what's important is its accessibility, its slotting into the imagination as seamlessly as the video slots into the player.

James and the Giant Peach

20th Century Fox Pounds 12.99. U. Ages 4-12

76 minutes

One of Roald Dahl's more poignant tales, rendered half-alive in the kind of computer animation famously used by Disney's Toy Story. A boy, abused by aunts and loved only by insects, finds some magic and grows a giant peach. The aunts try to cash in, but the peach escapes, taking James and half a dozen insects with it. The starry cast, including Simon Callow, Richard Dreyfuss, Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley, have a weird kind of half-life which seems to fit Dahl's baroque way with words and situations. Film-makers can never bring themselves to be as nasty as Dahl, so the aunts repent instead of meeting a grisly end, but the direction gives a haunting beauty to the tale.

Jungle Book

Disney Pounds 10.99. U. Ages All

75 minutes

"Keep it up", trumpets the major-general elephant Hathi. "King of the Jungle" warbles the orang-utan monarch with gay abandon. "Trust in me", coos Kaa, the snake. Look for the "bare necessities" urges Baloo, the wise old bear. They don't make swingers like this any more and, though Mowgli is sentimentally drawn and Kipling might turn in his grave at the frivolity, this cartoon version bursts with vigour and zest just as Kipling's language thrums with the exuberance of slang and formality used together. Coming from book to film or film to book, you can only be delighted.

Just William 1 and 2

BBC Pounds 9.99 each. U. Ages 8-14

Approx 120 minutes

For unruly boys or those who live with them, these adaptations provide lots of the kind of laughter you get from surprised recognition, with the added spin given by Richmal Crompton's incomparable comic plotting. Just William is classic farce, of the domestic kind ideally suited to camerawork. The laughter is addictive, just as it is in Crompton's stories. The social setting (here posh 1920s mode; later a middle-class canvas) was always secondary to sheer devilment, though Crompton's keen eye for adult hypocrisy finds keen expression in the actors. Jolly good fun.

Little Women

Columbia Pounds 14.99. U. Ages 10-16

114 minutes

Louisa M Alcott's great set pieces are as vivid today as ever. In Gillian Armstrong's 1996 version, Winona Ryder is beautiful and fiery as Jo, a character close to the author's own heart. Just as the book lurches between humour and sentimentality, so does the film, with Claire Danes playing the fragile Beth and Susan Sarandon the plucky mother (Marmee). The men, headed by Gabriel Byrne, are for once love-objects; Little Women is really about female experience, and highly inspiring it is.


Tristar Pounds 14.99. PG. Ages 5-12

94 minutes

Roald Dahl's popular fable of the girl who loves to read while her family loves to watch TV, translates into a racy, action and special effects-filled scamper directed by its star, Danny de Vito. He plays Matilda's father, the odious used-car dealer Wormwood, with a touch of malevolence; Pam Ferris plays demon headteacher Miss Trunchbull with jovial menace; but the scenes are stolen by Mara Wilson as Matilda. Her steady gaze and joyous grin infuse the savage moralities of the plot with delight. Literate young viewers will enjoy spotting the minute variances from the book.

Old Bear's Chair; Little Bear's Book

Carlton Pounds 6.99 each. U. Ages up to 6

30 minutes

Jane Hissey's enchanting tales have been turned into equally adorable TV programmes. Anton Rodgers narrates as the furry models deal with such mishaps as Rabbit breaking Old Bear's chair by using it as a slide and then trying to conceal the fact by organising a picnic for Old Bear and his friends. Is Old Bear fooled? Of course not. Even your three-year-old will not be.

Postman Pat's Big Video

BBC Pounds 8.99. U. Ages up to 7

60 minutes

"Postman Pat, Postman Pat . . . Early in the morning, just as day is dawning, Pat feels he's a really happy man." And he makes many a parent happy as little figures troop downstairs to watch him rather than wake the adults. But baby-sitting apart, Pat's safe little world of dales and postboxes offers a model of civic virtue as its own reward, mechanical failures fixed, weather conditions (breezy days, rainy days) overcome, errands delivered.

William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet

20th Century Fox. 12. Ages 11-18

Available for rental now, Pounds 14.99 from March 115 minutes

If you buy only one of these videos, make it this one. Buy it even if your children are little, because Baz Luhrman's stonking delivery of Shakespeare's tragedy is an unparalleled introduction for modern teenagers. From the first frame (TV newsreader as chorus), through the warring Montagues and Capulets as LA gangsters with fancy guns, and on to camp Mercutio's lurid demise, the pace is unremitting and the actors pulse with conviction. Pete Postlethwaite is a strong Friar Lawrence, but the heart-throbs are Leonardo di Caprio and Claire Danes, playing the leads. Although the ending is truncated, the enthusiasm generated is boundless.

Rosie and Jim: Biggest and Best 2

RagdollCarlton Pounds 9.99. U. Ages up to 5

180 minutes

Twelve complete episodes of Rosie and Jim, who are rather like the offspring of Postman Pat (and written by the same John Cunliffe), offer excellent entertainment and a lot of nice little "craft and counting" ideas for improving play. As John the writer tootles along on his canal boat, the puppet-dolls Rosie and Jim watch what he gets up to. When he isn't looking they come to life and explore the skills necessary to understand such adult activities as working canal locks, supermarket shopping, making pots, herding sheep and painting the boat. Rosie and Jim often get it wrong and it doesn't matter, which is rather encouraging for young viewers.

The Queen's Nose Vol 1: Episodes 1 and 2

Carlton Pounds 9.99. U. Ages 8-12

48 minutes

Although rather pricey, Carlton's drama series based on Dick King-Smith's sharp novel is a winner, crisply acted and keeping up a lively pace with up-to-the-minute dialogue. Harmony gets a shock when she discovers the downside of her magic 50p piece granting wishes. Watch out for subsequent epsiodes, currently wowing audiences at teatime. Production is very high quality.

The Secret Garden

Warner Brothers Pounds 14.99. U. Ages 7-14

97 minutes

It was long ago, when invalids lay in bed, creaking manor houses had long corridors and children without parents were posted off to distant relatives, that Mary, a grumpy little miss, was sent back from India in Frances Hodgson Burnett's tale. For her, Missel-thwaite Manor is a gloomy morass until she meets Dickon, the Yorkshire lad with green fingers. All the children act beautifully and Maggie Smith gives a regal yet warm performance as the dragon of a housekeeper.

The Sword in the Stone

Disney Pounds 10.99. U. Ages 4-12

76 minutes

As usual, Disney's version of a book classic eschews the larger, weighty issues, such as whether magic or chivalry is more important and how to deal with sibling rivalry, issues which gave TH White's books the gravity which has ensured their immortality. On the other hand, Disney's musical comedy is, as usual, diverting and retains just enough of the original, particularly the relationships between the Wart (young Arthur) and Merlin, to shape the narrative. Since Fantasia, the idea of magic getting out of hand has engaged Disney's artists. Here, with typical panache, they translate White's concerns into animated zaniness.

Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends: Chases, Buses and Runaways

Britt Allcroft Pounds 8.99. U. Ages 2-6

45 minutes

Toot, toot! Puff, puff! What a cultural wonder that the huge, heavy machines that ravaged Britain in the 19th century have been transmogrified into fictional characters with cheeky faces. Even the late Rev W Awdry is said to have been puzzled by the success of Thomas. A primitive morality prevails - in this offering Percy runs away but gets frightened at his own daring, Thomas goes past a danger sign and gets stuck down the mine, Caroline Car suffers the consequences of stopping the trains. Where the books are prosy and class-ridden, the videos, narrated for the most part by a deliciously lugubrious Ringo Starr, are snappy, ingenious, and infinitely preferable.

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