Clever cartoon drives home a grim message

``When the Wind Blows'' takes its title from the nursery song ``Rockabye Baby,'' which tells us that ``When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.'' This movie isn't about gentle springtime breezes, however. The wind it refers to is the blast from an all-out nuclear war - an unusual subject for an animated film, but one that's so important it deserves to be treated in movies of all kinds.

There are only two characters: an aging couple named Jim and Hilda, who live in a cozy cottage somewhere in the English countryside. They lead a quiet life; their nearest neighbors are some distance away, and now that they've retired to the country, they don't see their son and grandchild very often. But they like to keep busy with little tasks and chores - Hilda cooks and keeps the house, while Jim putters around on little projects he dreams up.

Lately the radio has been full of talk about world tensions and the possibility of war. So conscientious Jim has gotten a fistful of government pamphlets about what to do in emergencies. Armed with this official advice, which often contradicts itself from one booklet to another, he cheerfully sets about turning some doors and a mattress into something called ``an inner core or refuge'' for their house - that is, a place that's supposedly safe from the blast and heat of nuclear war. Hilda humors the old boy, not sure exactly what he's doing, but happy that it's keeping him busy.

Up to this point, ``When the Wind Blows'' is just a domestic comedy that happens to mention the subject of war. The movie takes on a new intensity when war actually strikes - wiping out much of Jim and Hilda's beloved countryside, but sparing them, because they're snuggled in their ``inner core or refuge.'' What they're not safe from is nuclear winter and radioactive fallout, which penetrate the ``inner core or refuge'' with the greatest of ease. The last part of the movie shows Jim and Hilda suffering and finally dying from the effects of radiation sickness.

``When the Wind Blows'' isn't a happy film, and its last portion is downright harrowing at times. But it raises many provocative issues, from the unthinkable horror of nuclear war itself to the kind of wishful thinking that tells us, ``Just follow the rules - have your `inner core or refuge' handy - and there's really nothing to worry about.'' Jim and Hilda are lovely people, as cartoon characters go. But they often behave most foolishly just when they think they're doing what a good citizen should, minding their own little house and trusting that other folks will run the world properly.

``When the Wind Blows'' has been simply but cleverly filmed by Jimmy T. Murakami, an animation specialist, using a new process that allows touches of live action and special effects to punctuate the film with surprising effectiveness. The result is a modest but powerful movie that takes the cartoon format into urgent and important new territory.

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