Whatever the story of Rip Van Winkle may represent, director Francis Ford Coppola tries his best to adapt it to the big screen. His Faerie Tale Theatre entry, introduced by Shelley Duvall, is a strange choice. A sure-fire passion project, and one that links the great director with the writings of Washington Irving. While Rip Van Winkle may have within it a primitive and simple story, it is the essential meaning behind it that marks it as a memorable short piece of literature, and though Coppola has capable hands-on deck, he does not quite inspire the story of appreciating what you have and when you have it.
It feels like a story ripe for the picking. With Harry Dean Stanton in the titular role, we are presented a rare outing for the man, who finds himself leading the charge rather than backing it or someone else up. He is solid in his role, as are Chris Penn and Talia Shire. One of the main draws for Rip Van Winkle is its cast, who are capable and fine but do not manage to cut through the overwhelmingly bland and repetitive dialogue. Shire, in particular, shouts of how she hates fish, huffing about the place with no real direction aside from “act angry, drive the titular character away”. It could be worse, though, and there are the odd camera shots that are worth viewing. The production design can be stellar, Winkle has been given a good array of costume choices, but it is all meaningless when the story is told in such reductive simplicity.
While the endearing qualities should come from the obvious stage and fluid costume design, my issue with Rip Van Winkle comes from its emotion and style. There is an overly staged, low-budget quality to it, which is fine for other pieces but Rip Van Winkle is too quick to acknowledge its drawbacks, rather than attempt a workaround. Coppola has a handful of nicely lit or shot scenes, Winkle on the porch as the burning red sun ebbs away looks nice enough, but again it fails to sail through the choppy waters of staged television, a style that died out, and for good reason too. Its design is off-putting and veers toward its theatre production aims without much conviction. Coppola is unable to adapt to the smaller scale, and when he tries to incorporate the big moments, they do not look grand or majestic.
There is a divide between me and Rip Van Winkle that I cannot explain. There is a value to be found in some of the scenes Stanton and Coppola craft, but the likes of Hunter Carson as Little Rip provide little in the way of quality. There is a fine line between accepting the drawbacks of television direction and utilising your budget to the fullest. Coppola fumbles quite frequently and does not quite find his way. Fairy tales do interest me, to a degree. Rip Van Winkle feels like a thoroughly interesting tale, with plenty of subtext to suggest the value of life and how we should appreciate the little things. Coppola doesn’t grapple that, even with a handful of marvellous shot compositions. But even then, questionable choices seem to be the startling, main drawback for this Irving classic.