Paddle to the Sea

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 29, 2015

Here is an excerpt from a book of mine about children’s literature and film, to be/published by McFarland in 2015:

The cinema is greatly benefited by its proclivity for substantial spectacle, for all manner of arresting audio-visual highlights that can so impress themselves upon the brain, and the soul. The Little Colonel’s charge in Birth of the Nation, the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin, the vision of Moloch in Metropolis, almost innumerable sequences in the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock—there is no end to the eye-popping, jaw-dropping images that cinema can create. It seems that this is what aficionados most celebrate, and what they come back to. However one of film’s greatest abilities—and, in an o’er kinetical, supersensated time, one of its most valuable benefits—is that it is capable of fashioning highlights that are just as searing, just as affecting and moving, in a smaller register.

In their adaptation of Holling C. Holling’s children’s picture book, Paddle-to-the-Sea, writer-director Bill Mason and his collaborators briefly describe a glancing action, and render it so as to make it into one of the most memorable, indelible moments in all of children’s cinema. Kyle, a young Native boy, is carving a little wooden canoe for himself. He has also carved for this canoe a small, dauntless inhabitant.

While he has been carving, a metal container that he had placed amidst the burning logs in the fireplace is melting lead into liquid. This metamorphosis completed, Kyle lifts the handle of his container with a wooden stick, and lays it on the flags just this side of the flame. He now dips an iron ladle into the molten. He turns the craft that he has fashioned upside down. He has burned these words into its keel.



These scored capital letters are all placed straight and true, as is the narrow carved hollow toward which Kyle now lifts the steaming ladle, with its metamorphic contents. Continuing to shoot with a very narrow depth of field, Mason frames the canoe so that it cuts a diagonal from the lower left to the upper right of the film frame. Now Kyle, who is after all just a young boy, quickly and confidently tilts the ladle so that its fearsome contents flow into the trench that he has carved for them. As the lead runs, the soundtrack sizzles, steam and smoke rise, and the hollowed space is filled, exactly and perfectly. By the time the lead has reached the end of its trench, it moves out of focus and into an impressionistic, perhaps even archetypal or mythological indistinctness.

When, or perhaps just before all of this enormity has registered, Mason cuts slightly ahead in time to another shot of the canoe’s keel, now stretching straight from left to right. The molten lead is now all set and hardened and firmly anchored. Kyle turns his creation over, and with the same care and craft and joy that had attended all of the previous stages of preparation, proceeds to paint it. This labor is also framed narrowly, and is firelit. After two minutes of elapsed screen time—and twelve rapturously unhurried, lingering shots—the whole job is done. Or at least the viewer feels that it is. In fact, this process has been elliptically assembled, giving the impression of completeness rather what might have been an agonizing totality. But what a sense of duration, and blessed difficulty, and sweet satisfaction this elliptical selection has given to its audience!

Its elements notwithstanding, these two processes, the child’s precocious crafting and the small crew’s sensitive cinematic capture are not really, not at all alchemical. No one has actually turned lead into gold. But they have done more, and better. They have turned lead into lead, liquid into solid, potential into kinetic, aspiration into action, idea into actuality. This isn’t commercialism, or escapism, and it is certainly not the agonized, heartfelt, and ultimately untenable representations of the likes of, say, Neil Postman. This is the cinema and what it can do, what it does all the time, for children and adults alike.