Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Incredible Journey

Filmed on location in the province of Ontario, Canada, Disney's The Incredible Journey (1963) was the apotheosis of the studio's animal pictures. By 1960 the True-Life Adventures series of documentaries had essentially played itself out, already beginning to evolve into narrative films with 1957's Perri. The mantle was taken up by a series of films about animal hi-jinx narrated by Rex Allen, beginning in 1960 with The Hound That Thought He Was A Raccoon and growing to include The Legend of Lobo (1962), Yellowstone Cubs (1963), Run, Appaloosa, Run (1966) and Charlie the Lonesome Cougar (1967), as well as a number of episodes of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. None have had the lasting regard as The Incredible Journey, which was even remade in 1993 as Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey.

As with the overwhelming majority of films during Walt's era, The Incredible Journey adapted a pre-existing work of literature. Written by Scottish-Canadian author Sheila Burnford and published in 1960, the scant 127-page novella won the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award and a number of other accolades, as well as capturing the interest of Disney. Whereas many books must be rigorously pruned in the transition to celluloid, The Incredible Journey's short length and lack of literary refinement allowed it to be adapted almost verbatim.

Though Burnford never expressed the intent that her novella should be specifically a children's book, it lacks the same literary and contemplative qualities that make other similar books the multigenerational and intergenerational classics they became. When compared to something like Felix Salten's Bambi, a Life in the Woods, there is no comparison. It isn't a bad book in any sense... Burnford simply seems to lack the same capacity for potent, emotive, sensitive description.

For comparison, here is Burnford telling of Bodger's reaction to the noises of the night in the bush:
In the nearby hills a timber wolf howled mournfully; owls called and answered and glided silently by with great outspread wings; and there were faint whispers of movement and small rustling noises around all through the night. Once an eerie wail like a baby's crying woke the old dog and brought him shivering and whining to his feet; but it was only a porcupine, who scrambled noisily and clumsily away, still crying softly. When he lay down again the cat was gone from his side – another small night hunter, slipping through the unquiet shadows that froze to stillness at his passing.
And here is Salten describing the forest:
In early summer the trees stood still under the blue sky, held their limbs outstretched and received the direct rays of the sun. On the shrubs and bushes in the undergrowth, the flowers unfolded their red, white and yellow stars. On some the seed pods had begun to appear again. They perched innumerable on the fine tips of the branches, tender and firm and resolute, and seemed like small, clenched fists. Out of the earth came whole troops of flowers, like motley stars, so that the soil of the twilit forest floor shone with a silent, ardent, colorful gladness. Everything smelled of fresh leaves, of blossoms, of moist clods and green wood. When morning broke, or when the sun went down, the whole woods resounded with a thousand voices, and from morning till night, the bees hummed, the wasps droned, and filled the fragrant still with their murmur. 
Another example, this is Tao the cat's daring rescue of Bodger from a bear:
The bear halted, then reared up to full height for attack, red eyes glinting savagely, neck upstretched and head weaving from side to side in a menacing, snakelike way. The cat uttered another banshee scream and stepped forward with a stiff-legged, sideways movement, his squinting terrible eyes fixed on his enormous adversary. Something like fear or indecision crept into the bear's eyes as the cat advanced; she shuffled back a step with lowered head. Slow, deliberate, purposeful, the cat came on - again the bear retreated, bewildered by the tactics of this terrible small animal, distraught by her cub's whimpering, slowly falling back before the spring that must follow, longing to decamp but afraid to turn her back.
Compare this to Bambi's first rut, the sudden murderous rage he experiences when competing for Faline the doe:
His charge was irresistable and, before he knew what had happened, Karus was lying in the grass. He was up again quicker than a flash, but was no sooner on his feet than a new attack made him stagger.
"Bambi," he cried. "Bam..." he tried to cry again, but a third blow, that glanced off his shoulder, nearly chocked him with pain.
Karus sprang to one side in order to elude Bambi, who came rushing on again. Suddenly he felt strangely weak. At the same time he realized  with a qualm that this was a life and death struggle. Cold terror seized him. He turned to flee from the silent Bambi who came rushing after him. Karus knew that Bambi was furious and would kill him without mercy, and that thought numbed his wits completely. He fled from the path and, with a final effort, burst through the bushes. His one hope was of escape.
Many reviewers laud Burnford for eschewing attempts at anthropomorphism, a charge frequently levied at Salten. Indeed it is good that the animals in The Incredible Journey are not just humans in animal clothes. Yet it is unfair to Salten to make that accusation, and the art of writing a book on animals is more nuanced than that simple dialectic of whether or not assigning feelings to animals anthropomorphizes them. None of the denizens of Bambi's forest are human in animal clothes either, but Salten is still able to powerfully convey what the experience of animal life must be like. No animal would describe an elk's screeching, bugling call as "Their deep voices rolled toward him like the mighty moaning of noble, maddened blood whose primal power was giving utterance to longing, rage and pride" yet that is the most perfect and emotionally true description of it that I have read. It is far more accurate to the feeling of an elk's call than simply to say that elks sound like the squeal of a rusty metal gate, or to provide no real description at all. 

Consequently, The Incredible Journey reads like a story about the antics of a trio of animals but not really about the animals themselves. It describes things that happen to them, and condescends to stating that they are feeling something every now and then, but it lacks any real insight or characterization. It has a childish simplicity to it, whereas Salten's writing has the more potent minimalism of someone who loves language and knows how to use it. Burnford chooses words because they work, Salten chooses words because they're the best. 

Not that Burnford's writing is without its moments of charm, as when Bodger decided that the lure of a human household was too enticing to resist any longer.
A widening stream of light from the opening door revealed a small girl. The old dog grinned hideously in pleasure, his slanted eyes blinking strangely in the sudden light. There is little to equal a bull terrier's grin, however charmingly presented, for sheer astonishing ugliness.
There was a moment's silence, followed by an urgent wail of 'Dad...' Then the door slammed shut in his face.
It's not really a surprise that The Incredible Journey only became popular as a novella after the Disney film adaptation. The simplicity of Burnford's writing and the brevity of the novella translated so well to film that there really isn't an overwhelming need to read it. The movie covers exactly everything that the book has to offer, with the added benefit of visuals.

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