At times when my 2 ½ year old son gets in a DVD rut, I “accidentally” pop something totally random into the player. More often than not, this doesn’t fly, and we’re doomed to a 34th viewing of Goofy’s Coconutty Monkey, or yet another Team Umizoomi quest. However, I recently had good luck with an old standby from my own grade school 16mm days, a 28-minute film from 1966 entitled Paddle-to-the-Sea, which was sufficiently different from anything my son had ever seen in the Day-Glo CGI wonderland of today’s children’s television that it held him spellbound almost from start to finish. Paddle-to-the-Sea, based on a Caldecott honored book of the same title by Holling Clancy Holling, tells the story of a miniature birchbark canoe and rider carved by an Indian boy living in a wilderness cabin north of Lake Superior. The boy carves the words “Please put me back in water—I am Paddle-to-the-Sea” on the bottom of the canoe, and releases it to flow down the river from his home into Lake Superior and beyond.
The film, produced by the National Film Board of Canada and nominated for an Oscar in 1968, presents a live action, miniature canoe’s-eye view of the journey, as Paddle-to-the-Sea is approached by curious beavers and birds, shoots rapids and negotiates the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, washes up on a Lake Michigan beach, and witnesses a forest fire. Rescued several times by humans who follow the Indian boy’s edict and return the canoe to water, Paddle-to-the-Sea eventually reaches the Atlantic off the coast of Newfoundland. There the canoe is found by a lighthouse keeper, who touches up its paint job and makes a few repairs before re-releasing Paddle-to-the Sea to continue his travels.
The film and book are a testament to the age of analog entertainment, from the carving of Paddle-to-the Sea himself, to the hand-drawn illustrations and maps of Holling’s 1941 book, to the real animals, ships, waterfalls and fires captured by the filmmakers. No wonder my son was awestruck; movie and book look nothing like the digitally crafted images that make up the majority of media he has seen all his life.
Interestingly, children’s illustrator Jon Klassen, whose understated picture books I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat have garnered so much popular success and critical acclaim in recent years, has cited Paddle-to-the-Sea as an inspiration. Klassen’s stony animal characters reflect his fascination with the idea of a “passive protagonist” along the lines of folklore’s Steadfast Tin Soldier, whose ill-fated love for a toy ballerina sends him on an eventful journey in which he is placed in a paper boat, washed into a storm drain and eaten by a fish, later caught and returned to the home of the tin soldier’s original owner, who releases him from the fish’s belly only to toss him into the fire along with his true love. And no discussion of the passive protagonist would be complete without a nod to one of the more famous examples of his type written for adults: Chauncey Gardiner, whose reticence and simple willingness to proceed propel him to such great and undeserved heights of fame in Jerzy Kosinski’s classic novel Being There, and who was immortalized by Peter Sellers’ portrayal in the 1979 film.