This year Australia’s favourite anthropomorphic koala, Blinky Bill, returns to the big screen after a two and a half decade hiatus. If the furry scamp’s new CGI-lacquered outing becomes a commercial success, it could well prompt Australian film financiers to consider other kid-friendly cinematic nostalgia ripe for a modern makeover.
Dot and the Kangaroo, released in 1977, was the second animated feature ever made in Australia and the first to find commercial success. It was created by veteran writer/director/producer Yoram Gross, the same artist who gave Blinky his cinematic debut in 1992. Gross made not one or two sequels but eight, in turn creating one of the most successful Australian production companies (Yoram Gross Films) in history.
While Dot and the Kangaroo’s themes and emotional messages are timeless, its old-school dual layer aesthetic – simple animation on top of live action backgrounds – looks like a relic from a bygone era. A contemporary spit and polish might bring this wonderful film back into the zeitgeist, provided the heart and soul of it isn’t eroded in the process.
The film is about the fear of a child losing its parents juxtaposed alongside the fear of a parent losing its child. Kangaroo (the voice of Joan Bruce) is a surrogate mother to Dot (voice of Barbara Frawley) who we first see sitting on the stump of a tree weeping inconsolably. After convincing her parents to let her visit the gully close to sundown, Dot takes a tumble and finds herself lost in the forest.
Kangaroo feeds her roots she describes as “the food of understanding”. This allows Dot to understand and talk to the animals. Kangaroo warns her young companion if she eats too much she’ll know too much. When Dot asks whether it’s possible to know too much, she is told: “Oh indeed, yes, and it will make you miserable.”
The story, co-adapted by Gross from a children’s book published in 1899, is driven by Kangaroo’s promise to help Dot find her way home. Their journey leads them to the council of animals (who decide all forest matters) and an obnoxious silver-tongued platypus who is supposedly the wisest creature in the bush.
A smattering of sing-along songs break up a plot line unafraid to delve into darkness and pathos. There’s a ditty performed by a couple of adorable ducks (“We’re thirsty and we’re frightened and our throats may have tightened”), a surreal and vaguely terrifying number about a bunyip and a knee-slapping lark put on by a group of frogs singing about the fun you can have “when you’re a frog on a log”.
The plain look of the film is charming in a retro, rudimentary way. In a sense, its no-frills aesthetic emphasises its most important assets: quaint musical numbers, touching dialogue and a screenplay dotted with commentary on the impact of human beings on the environment. A tear-jerking finale leads to an unforgettable image – truly a strange and wonderful moment in Australian cinema – of an animated and real-life kangaroo rolled into one.
Kangaroo’s unconditional kindness, borne from the loss of her joey, is the emotional centre of a story that takes on Puff the Magic Dragon-like resonance. It is about the profound things we experience as children, which the passage to adulthood forces us to say goodbye to. Dot and the Kangaroo belongs to the pantheon of terk jerkers, that rare breed of family films (from Bambi to Toy Story 3) revered for their ability to reduce grown adults to blubbery messes.
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