Roald Dahl has, as a writer, always managed to wonderfully balance the mundane with the surreal, the bizarre with the run of the mill. His best work (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG) were,despite their fantastical elements, still rooted in elements of social reality: the Buckets’ poverty, Sophie’s lack of a family. Esio Trot, whilst still retaining the trademark Dahl moments, is one of his more overtly saccharine and capricious pieces. Detailing Mr Hoppy’s attempts to woo Mrs Silver the neighbour downstairs through a convoluted and detailed plan involving the timely replacement of tortoises, Esio Trotshould have made for perfect New Year’s Day viewing.
Dustin Hoffman stars as Mr Hoppy, a quiet, self-contained man who has, for a time, harboured an affection for Judi Dench’s Mrs Silver. Struggling to connect with her in a meaningful way, after hearing her complain of her beloved tortoise Alfie’s inability to grow, he informs her of a chant of African extraction that may help Alfie to grow in size. He purchases and subsequently secretes away a large number of tortoises who all differ in size, planning to replace the original Alfie with new slightly larger Alfies in turn in order to convince Mrs Silver that the chant is working.
Both Hoffman and Dench are utterly charming and highly engaging: we entirely understand why Mr Hoppy would go to such lengths in order to charm his beatific neighbour. The tone retains the wonderful whimsy of Dahl’s text and is certainly rather lovely to look at and it is this that ensures that Esio Trot remained a success despite the number of ill-judged moments and decisions.
The largest issue is surely the additions made to the script, and thus the blame must squarely lie with Richard Curtis’ decision to embellish Dahl’s story, adding an entirely pointless and ultimately grating framing narration featuring the ever-irritating James Corden. Corden’s narration is simply not needed: the discussions about the story with his precocious young daughter merely serve to take the audience’s attention away from the central romance. An audience is entirely capable of understanding motivation without a narration telling us how we should be interpreting an event and what we are meant to be understanding.
Ultimately, and perhaps because of the forgiving nature of the festive season Esio Trot was an enjoyable and mostly charming piece, in spite of Corden’s disingenuous dull narration.