The Selfish Giant (1971)

the selfish giant

“‘My own garden is my own garden,’ said the giant. ‘Anyone can understand that. And I will allow nobody to play in it but myself.'”

The Scoop: 1971 G, directed by Peter Sander and starring Paul Hecht and Charles Aznavour.

Tagline: None.

Summary Capsule: It’s about a giant who is selfish, and learns that this is not necessarily a good thing. 

Deneb’s Rating: 3 ½ flowering trees out of five.

Deneb’s Review: Yes, your eyes do not deceive you – here, at last, is another installment of Tales from the VHS! My apologies for taking so long between segments, but hey, there’s only so many of these that I can do, and I want to spin them out a bit – and when you start that sort of spinning, it’s sometimes difficult to stop.

Anyway. This time, I have something to share with you that I have decidedly mixed feelings about. It was a special part of my childhood, and will always have a place in my heart – and yet, there was a period of a number of years during which I actively avoided it.

Why? Well, we’ll get to that. In the meantime – ladies, gentlemen, farm animals, I present to you The Selfish Giant.

The story is based on a tale by Oscar Wilde, and is really pretty simple. Somewhere in the (presumably) English countryside lives a giant, who, like most giants, resides in a castle. This castle has a beautiful garden surrounding it, with many flowers and trees that blossom in the spring. As it’s situated close to a small village, the local children have taken to playing in it after school, climbing the trees, listening to the birdsong, and generally having a good time.

The thing is, though, they’re only able to do this because the giant in question (who’s never named, he’s just “the giant”) is not currently in residence. He’s away visiting a friend, but one day he comes back, and is not pleased at all to see his private garden being frolicked in by children. You see, he’s a selfish sort, and prefers to keep the place to himself.

So he cannibalizes part of the castle for stones (this is not, I think, in the original, but it’s a prominent part of this version), and builds a high wall around the garden. He then hangs a sign on the gate reading “Trespassers will be Prosecuted”. In other words, “keep out, you little nits! This is my garden, so there!” And it works – no more children invade his privacy.

The thing is, though, there are disadvantages to this solitude. The garden itself has become accustomed to being played in, and as time passes and winter turns to spring, inside the walls it remains winter. The trees and flowers just can’t muster up the get-and-go to bloom as long as the children are being kept out.

This is bad enough in and of itself, but now things get still worse. The personifications of Snow and Frost, seeing that in this one place spring never comes, gleefully decide to take up permanent residence within the garden – and while they’re at it, they may as well invite their friends the Hail and the North Wind to stay for a while. Soon they’re all having a merry old time, and as far as they’re concerned, things can stay this way forever! Winter party! Wheee!

The giant, though, is not enjoying himself at all. As the seasons shift outside his garden and his castle starts falling to bits through the Hail dancing on top of it, he grows steadily colder, more miserable, and more bewildered at how infernally long this winter is turning out to be. All he can do is hope that it will end soon. But how can it end, when the only way to end it is for the children to return, and the only way they can return is through the abolition of the wall and the sign? Hmm…

All right, let’s start with the good stuff, for good stuff there is. The Selfish Giant is a beautifully made little film – and I say “little” intentionally, because it only runs about twenty-five minutes. There’s little actual dialogue, and that is delivered by the film’s narrator, Paul Hecht (Charles Aznavour in the French version), who does quite a good job of switching voices, tones, etc., as the film demands. As someone who’s taken a few classes in such techniques, I can attest that it’s quite a quality performance, and carries the brunt of the narrative very well.

He’s helped out in this by the music, which is terrific stuff. The basic score is orchestral, but used very cleverly to highlight the action and serve as sound effects. When the giant is first entering the garden after having been away, for example, it launches into this combination of what I’m guessing are a tuba and bass drum that bring a terrific feeling of approaching menace, approximating the giant’s thunderous footfalls and giving you a good sense of just how big this guy is. Also there are a couple of very nice songs that, while not catchy in the traditional sense, will definitely stick in your head like a burr to a sock – not something you can often say about choral music.

But of course, this isn’t an audio book – how’s the animation? The animation would like to let you know that it is fine, thanks. In fact, it’s rather beautiful. It’s not exactly the lush, Disney-esque sort of animation you’d get from a big-budget studio, but neither is it the more limited sort of style common on TV at the time – it’s somewhere in between. It’s simple but fluid, with an overall look that reminds me of a finely-rendered picture book brought to life.

So it sounds great, it looks great – what about the characters? Well, the only real characters are the giant himself and the quartet of winter personifications. (There are the children, of course, but they don’t have much in the way of individual characteristics.) This is rather interesting, actually, as all of the above could be viewed as villains, but none of them actually are. The giant is a bit of a jerk when he drives off the kids, but most of the film is told from his viewpoint, and you wind up sympathizing with the big lug quite a bit, especially as he inevitably mellows out near the end. After all, the only thing the guy’s actually guilty of is wanting a bit of privacy – if he’d just been a bit more polite about it, the whole mess could have been avoided.

Speaking of which, while the giant may have been the main character, to my mind the four wintery types are the real scene-stealers. I love these guys – sure, they’re causing the poor giant a lot of grief (although it’s all his fault, of course), but they’re all having so much fun. They’re just dancing around, doing their thing, frolicking in their own private little winter wonderland. And their designs are perfect – I won’t go into all of them, but the Hail in particular is pretty much exactly what the personification of hail should look like. He’s a guy in a suit of armor who tap-dances on your roof – fits pretty well, wouldn’t you say? To this day, whenever I anthropomorphize inclement weather, I tend to think of these guys first.

OK, so if there are all these things about The Selfish Giant that I like, and it’s a cherished memory from my childhood, and so on and so forth, then why did I not watch it for years on end? Why the mixed feelings? Why not simple embrace it?

Well, there’s the rub. The thing about this is that it may very well just be me that takes issue with the thing in question, and I don’t want to make any blanket statements about it that might turn away potential viewers. I overall like it a hell of a lot, and I would be perfectly willing to recommend it unconditionally, if it weren’t for… well… this one little thing. (Note to those who dislike people venting their personal opinions in movie reviews: you may wish to skip the next part, because I’m sorry, there’s no way to avoid this and still make it an honest review – I am about to go off into a rant. You’ve been warned.)

Said one little thing is the ending. I’m not going to give it away, but suffice it to say that The Selfish Giant ends on a decidedly religious, specifically a Christian, note.

Now, I wouldn’t really have had a problem with this if such themes had been prevalent throughout the whole film (although admittedly, I probably wouldn’t have watched it in the first place had that been the case), but that’s the thing – they aren’t. It’s sort of foreshadowed a bit earlier on, but there is nothing – nothing – up to that point that suggests that such a message is being led up to or, indeed, is needed or relevant in any way. For the vast majority of its running time, The Selfish Giant’s theme is simple, universal, and really rather touching – “selfishness is bad, kindness and generosity are rewarded”, plus having a little fun with the forces of nature. And then all of a sudden, whack! The film hits you across the puss with a religious message, and if you’re anything like me you spend the final few minutes blinking and going ‘uh?’

Personally, I resent such tactics. I don’t like unsubtle stealth messages in my movies, especially not unsubtle stealth messages that appeal directly to a very specific audience. It gives one the feeling that you’ve watched the whole movie just for this one thing to be hammered home, despite the fact that it has virtually nothing to do with the rest of the film. You could take it out entirely and end the film a couple minutes earlier, and it would be just as effective, if not more.

So, yeah, I don’t like that sort of thing. I also don’t like being lectured or preached to, especially considering the fact that the film is basically aimed at kids, and I firmly believe that such things are the kiss of death for anything that hopes to attract a younger audience. When I was a tiny little kidlet myself the ending just sort of puzzled me, but it wasn’t too long afterwards that I realized what was going on, and I resented it. Moreover, I was offended by it. You might even say I felt betrayed. The rest of the movie is so good, and then hey, message time! Time for a bit of indoctrination, kids; gotta get this doctrine into your tender little brains! Even if I was a Christian myself (I’m not), I’m pretty sure I would have gotten mad about this, because dang it all, I don’t watch movies for that sort of thing. For that matter, I don’t know anyone who does – I mean, if you’ve already subscribed to the religion, you’ve already been given the message, and if you haven’t, you don’t want the message; at any rate, not like that. If you’re going to preach at me, be so good as to do so in a straightforward manner, don’t sucker-punch me with it when I’m least expecting it and have absolutely no reason to. That is rude, and bad storytelling, and, for that matter, no way to deliver any sort of religious philosophy, if such is your intention.

So as I started to understand the ending, I began to dislike it. And gradually the ending began to overshadow the rest of the film for me, until finally I took to avoiding The Selfish Giant entirely. This was not without some regret – I’d still hum the songs to myself every now and then; I’d still think wistfully of the rest of the story, but that damn ending – faaugh!

Mind you, having rewatched it with the benefit of years, I’m a bit more mature about the whole thing now. I know the ending’s there, and I can accept it as part of the film. But I can’t wholeheartedly enjoy The Selfish Giant in the way that I should be able to, because even now I can’t help but go “aw crap, here it comes” as its end approaches. It’s not exactly a fatal flaw, but it is a significant one, and one that I personally have never been able to entirely overlook.

Really, though, this is not necessarily the fault of the film itself – it’s an adaptation of an already-existing work, after all, and the original story ended that way, too. I can fault the filmmakers for the decision to leave the ending as is (would it really have been so hard to just excise or alter it a little bit, guys?), but I can’t fault them for unfaithfulness to the story. If the original Selfish Giant tale happens to be a favorite of yours, ending included, you will most likely have no problem with this adaptation of it.

And like I said, the particular reaction I had may very well just be me. Honestly, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. I mean, I do tend to have strong views on these subjects, and it’s quite possible that for more easygoing types, it’ll be a “water off a duck’s back” sort of viewing experience and leave them completely unruffled. And when all is said and done, I don’t wish to poison anyone against The Selfish Giant, or rail against it or anything. I really do like the majority of it quite a bit – it’s just that one little bit at the end that gets under my skin.

So because of that getting-under-my-skin bit, I can’t recommend The Selfish Giant as unreservedly as I’d normally like to. I do recommend it, however, because however many issues I may have with it, I will freely and gladly admit that it’s a good movie overall, and that there are, I’m sure, many, many people out there who would have no problem with such things at all. It is good, it is well-made, and watching it again was a nice little hit of nostalgia for me despite my reservations. If, while reading the first part of this review, you were going “hey, this sounds like something I’d like”, then it’s quite possible that you are completely correct, and will walk away from it going “man, I don’t know what that guy was going on about – that was great!” Or maybe you’ve already seen it, it was a childhood favorite for you too, and you can’t see why I’m getting so worked up over something that’s never bothered you in the slightest. If so, I couldn’t be happier for you. By all means, ignore my ranting and enjoy The Selfish Giant for the overall gem that it is.

But if the latter part has provoked some frowning and chin-stroking and “hmm – I don’t know”-ing to occur, then… well, make your own decision on the subject. But if you do decide to check it out, then you might just want to stop the movie a little early. Or at any rate, go in forewarned.

Thank you, and goodnight – or morning, or whatever. And if you’ve been distracted from your reading of this by some guy dancing on your roof in full plate armor, go out and lug a couple rocks at ‘im. That usually does the trick.

The giant looked at the stone and chuckled to himself. “You know,” he mused, “someone once told me that falling stones in the mountains are a sign of avalanches, but as this is a CASTLE, naturally that’d just be silOWOWOUCHOUCHOUCH IT’S COMING DOOOOOWNN…”

Intermission!

  • It was nominated for Best Animated Short.
  • While the appearances of the four winter incarnations are all suggested by passages from the story, the Hail is the only one with a design that is a radical departure from it. Oscar Wilde merely described him as “dressed in grey”, from which it’s a bit of a leap to get to “wearing armor”.
  •  The two songs are sung by the King’s Singers, a prominent a cappella group from Britain.

Groovy Quotes:

Narrator: After the seven years were over, he had said all that he had to say, for his conversation was limited…

Song lyric: You’re building a wall to surround yourself/You’re just building a wall to protect yourself/You’re just building a wall to defend yourself/but you’re building a wall/That will break your heart.

Narrator: The only people who were pleased were the Snow and the Frost. “Spring has forgotten this garden!” they cried. “So we will live here all the year round!”

Song lyric: You’re a fool if you think you can live/Your life without sharing sunshine and gladness/If you think you can live without love/You’re building a wall of sorrow and madness.

Narrator: “My own garden is my own garden,” said the giant. “Anyone can understand that. And I will allow nobody to play in it but myself.”

Song Lyric: Years go over/Years go over/And the pleasures of the past/Seem so empty/Oh so empty/But I’ve learned to love at last.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (‘70’s cartoon version)
  • The Snow Queen (No particular adaptation in mind, but the story has some similarities in tone)

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