Color, 1977, 92 mins.
Directed by Lionel Jeffries
Starring David Tomlinson, Frances de la Tour, Bonnie Langford
Scorpion (US R0 NTSC), Network (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

The IncubusThe 1970s was a pop culture playpen for kids in The Incubusfront of their TV sets, with an avalanche of cartoons alternating with plenty of actors in plush costumes dancing, singing, and getting into trouble (much of it oddly psychedelic). Be it Sid and Marty Krofft with the likes of H.R. Pufnstuf or the prolific output of Jim Henson, the groundwork was laid for the colorful family entertainment we know today along with more perverse offshoots like Meet the Feebles and a slew of horror films with people in sinister animal outfits. Perhaps the most popular British variation was the Wombles, a gang of lovable underground creatures who promote environmental friendliness. They originally began as a book series by Elisabeth Beresford, with an animated TV series kicking off in 1973 and reviving again in 1996. They will all pretty much look the same at first glance, but fans quickly grew to pick their favorites among such characters as Orinoco, Great Uncle Bulgaria, Bungo, and Madame Cholet, who peppers her dialogue with French expressions.

The decision to make a live action film was a logical one, even beating out the future success of the Muppets on the big screen by two years. The resulting film, Wombling Free, plays more like a string of disconnected miniature stories than a traditional movie, but the overall focus involves the Wombles making their presence known to people including a family called the Frogmortons (with the patriarch played by Mary Poppins' Tomlinson) and dealing with some odd Japanese neighbors. There's also a brief subplot about their home becoming endangered by freeway instruction, and there are the usual lessons about making use of trash and showing respect for the planet.

Of course, one of the biggest factors in the Wombles' popularity was the music, courtesy of songs by the versatile pop musician Mike Batt. Originally enlisted to write the theme song for the TV show, he became the characters' musical voice (and turned them into a bona fide act with a The Incubusstring of albums) and naturally stayed on to work on the film. The highlight here is The Incubuseasily the splashy rendition of "Wombling White Tie and Tails," in which the Wombles take over an abandoned theater and romp through a string of musical parodies invoking On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, The Sound of Music, Busby Berkeley, and Mae West, among others. Shortly afterwards Batt would write the song "Bright Eyes" for Watership Down and temporarily relocate to Australia, where he created the memorable new wave sci-fi TV musical Zero Zero. More recently he's been behind the career of popular singer Katie Melua, and most of his albums (almost all highly recommended) have been reissued and are worth seeking out.

Also noteworthy is director Lionel Jeffries, who had enjoyed a career as a screen actor since his debut in Alfred Hitchcock's underrated Stage Fright in 1950; his other films included The Quatermass Xperiment, The Revenge of Frankenstein, and Who Slew Auntie Roo? He shifted to directing family-friendly films in 1970 with the successful The Railway Children, and after this film he made his final directorial effort, the afternoon TV favorite The Water Babies.

A cute little diversion, Wombling Free was a VHS mainstay in both the US (from RCA/Columbia) and the UK but became somewhat obscure once DVD took over. Eventually Network issued a British DVD release licensed from the Rank Organisation, whose solid anamorphic transfer also forms the basis for the 2013 American DVD debut from Scorpion. There's not much to complain about here; colors are punchy, detail is fine given the inconsistent nature of the source material (which sometimes looks like it was underlit in a few scenes), and the mono audio handles the Batt tunes and instrumental score perfectly well without a fancy 5.1 remix in sight. This seems like a surprising choice for Scorpion, better known for their string of notable horror, cult, and action releases, and it's one of their very few titles not hosted by Katarina Leigh Waters. The mind boggles at what she could have done in a Womble costume. The sole extra is the theatrical trailer.

Reviewed on May 25, 2013.