Mole's underground home is knocked in when the field is bulldozed by Weasels; the field has been owned by Mr. Toad (Terry Jones), who has sold it to finance his latest fad; caravanning. Mole (Steve Coogan) flees to the river and meets the Water Rat (Eric Idle), who is getting ready to embark on a picnic. Seeing Mole's distress, Rat decides to take Mole to see Mr. Toad. Toad encourages them to travel with him on the Open Road, in his newly bought canary-coloured cart. Disaster strikes when a pair of joyriders in a motor car knock over the cart. Toad, however, instantly discards the cart and becomes obsessed with motoring. He is a reckless driver, however, and ends up needing more money from the weasels. Their Chief (Antony Sher), tries to persuade him to sell Toad Hall.
Accompanying their Chief on his mission to steal Toad Hall are Clarence Weasel (Keith-Lee Castle) and Geoffrey Weasel (Richard James), who both passionately hate one another, as becomes more obvious each time we see them, and St. John Weasel (Robert Bathurst), who attempts to suck up to the chief, but his bumbling stupidity always rubs him up the wrong way. The Weasels have plans to build on Toad's meadow - St. John almost reveals what they have in mind, but the Chief prevents him from doing so.
During a crazy drive into the Wild Wood, resulting in the destruction of another car, all three protagonists are lost in the inhospitable place. Mole encounters the Weasels, who attempt to coerce him into stopping his friends from interfering with their plans. They later encounter Toad, after fleeing when Rat arrives. All three protagonists end up in Mr. Badger's underground abode. Badger (Nicol Williamson), a close friend of Toad's late father and feeling responsible for Toad's reckless conduct regarding his inheritance, is awakened from his deep sleep. As soon as he learns the news, Badger takes the initiative to put some sense back in Toad's head.
However, Toad refuses to listen to Badger and continues his reckless behavior which ultimately ends up with him being arrested for stealing and crashing a new motor-car. During his trial, Toad's defense lawyer (a cameo from John Cleese) proves to be more of a problem than the prosecution. Furthermore, the Weasels are dominating the public box, and the Chief Weasel is posing as one of the rabbits in the Jury, and coerces the terrified creatures into finding Toad guilty. The Judge (Stephen Fry) initially sentences Toad to twenty years in prison, but after Toad insults the Court and makes a botched escape attempt, the Judge increases the sentence gradually, eventually resulting in a hundred-year sentence.
Rat and Mole then move into Toad Hall for a while, protecting it from the Weasels. They ponder whether or not they should break Toad out of prison, but are then ambushed by the Weasels, who take Toad Hall as their own. Outside, they see barrels marked "Bones" and "Danger Explosives". Rat decides to switch the labels for each barrel to keep tamper with whatever the Weasels are up to.
With the help of the sympathetic Jailer's Daughter (Julia Sawalha) and her reluctant Tea Lady Aunt (a cameo from Victoria Wood), Toad escapes, disguised as the latter. Along with Rat and Mole, he climbs aboard a train engine. During the course of the journey, the police demand for the train to be stopped; Toad confesses and begs the driver (Bernard Hill) to help him evade his captors. If only to protect his train, the driver agrees to help. He tosses coal lumps at the police, but gets caught in a mail catcher. Toad takes control of the train and is separated. He eventually crashes the engine, though he miraculously survives. Toad sets off again but only to get caught again by the Weasels, who in the meantime have taken over Toad Hall.
The full extent of their twisted plans are revealed: they have built a dog-food factory over the remains of Mole's house and are planning to blow up Toad Hall, and build a huge slaughterhouse in its place, with which they will 'process' all of the peaceful Riverbank dwellers, and turn them into dog food. Along with this, their activities have also damaged Badger's home, which provokes him into taking decisive action against them. Badger and Rat attempt to break into Toad Hall, but are caught by the Weasels. Along with Toad, they are placed in the factory's mincing machine under the orders of the Chief Weasel. The Chief, Clarence and Geoffrey return to Toad Hall to prepare the victory celebration, leaving St. John in charge of the machine. Mole, who has broken into the factory, disables the machine, enabling them to escape.
Lulled by a premature sense of victory, the Chief Weasel's henchmen turn traitor, and attempt to blow him up using a Toad Hall shaped birthday cake, and Clarence and Geoffrey begin quarreling among themselves for leadership, with the other Weasels taking sides drunkenly. This allows the protagonists to stage a raid on the house, leaving all the weasels incapacitated in the ensuing fight. However, the Chief is revealed to still be alive, and he escapes the scene, and is pursued by Toad. Toad attempts to stop him from reaching the factory, containing the detonator necessary to blow up Toad Hall, to no avail. Unbeknownst to both of them, the explosives are actually in the factory as result of Rat switching the barrel labels earlier, and as such, the Chief blows up the factory, killing him, and leaving Toad Hall untouched and Toad's friends alive and well.
Afterwards, Toad makes a public speech swearing off motor cars and promising to be wiser and less prideful in the future. Toad then sneaks off during a song with Mole, Rat and Badger, for the second time and is seen speaking to an airplane salesman, showing that he has not changed at all, only moved onto a new craze. Moments later, Toad flies over the crowd in the plane, causing mass hysteria and resulting in Badger swearing never to help Toad again. The film ends with Toad flying out across the country, and eventually over the sea.
Songs featured in the film
Four songs were created especially for this film, and appear in it in the following order:
"Messing About On The River" - Sung at the beginning by Ratty, as he and Mole set out for a picnic on the river.
"Secret of Survival" - Sung by the Weasels, explaining their "only out for themselves" way of life.
"Mr. Toad" - Sung by Toad, taken directly from the novel. (The lyrics of Mr. Toad's song of self-praise set to music.) Split into three sections, one covering his escape from Toad Hall, one during his trial and one after his train ride.
"Friends Is What We Is" - Sung by Toad, Badger, Mole and Rat, as they drive the Weasels out of Toad Hall, and during the party at the end.
"Miracle of Friends" - The song played during the end credits, singing about how important friendship is.
Steve Coogan as Mole
Eric Idle as Rat
Terry Jones as Mr. Toad
Nicol Williamson as Mr. Badger
Antony Sher as The Chief Weasel
Stephen Fry as The Judge
John Cleese as Mr. Toad's Lawyer
Michael Palin as The Sun
Bernard Hill as The Engine Driver
Nigel Planer as The Car Salesman
Julia Sawalha as The Jailer's Daughter
Victoria Wood as The Tea Lady
Don Henderson as The Sentry
Robert Bathurst as St. John Weasel
Richard James as Geoffrey Weasel and Mole's Clock
Keith-Lee Castle as Clarence Weasel
Roger Ashton-Griffiths as The Prosecution Counsel
Nick Gillard as a stunt double
John Boswall as the Elderly Gentleman
The Wind in the Willows was produced by Allied Filmmakers in the UK and was then distributed by Columbia Pictures (1997/USA), Columbia TriStar, Pathé and Walt Disney Home Video (2004/USA). Terry Jones (who plays Mr. Toad), one of the legendary Monty Python cast, teamed up with some of the remaining Pythons to bring the classic tale up to date for another generation to enjoy. Eric Idle as Rat, plays a major role, but John Cleese and Michael Palin have only small roles. John Cleese plays Toad's inept defence lawyer, and Michael Palin plays a sardonic Sun, who occasionally chastises Toad for his reckless behaviour, and briefly speaks to Ratty and Mole. Terry Gilliam was asked to voice 'The River" but busy filming schedules kept him from joining the cast. "The River" only has one instance of dialogue in the entire film - he is shown with a mouth and sings a couple of lines of the first song.
Distribution problems in the U.S.
When the film first appeared in the U.S. under its original title, it got pushed aside due to distributors' problems and very little promotional material was published. Takings in the UK had been low because the film had largely been shown only in the afternoon. Subsequently, New York papers wondered why such a wonderful children's film was dumped by distributors. The New York Times published a very positive review by Lawrence Van Gelder. Yet, to add to the confusion, Disney Productions, in their video release changed its name to Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, to tie into their amusement park ride (the Walt Disney World version of which was put to an end in 1998).
At the time of the film's US release Terry Jones, who was working on a documentary in New York, was told by telephone that the film was being shown in a cinema on Times Square. Jones rushed down to the square only to discover that the film was showing at ".. one of those seedy little porno theatres.”.
The films won the Best of the Fest award at the Chicago International Children's Film Festival in 1998 and the WisKid Award at the Wisconsin International Children's Film Festival in 2000.
In the U.K. the film sub-totaled £1,143,011 (17 November 1996) and in the U.S.A $72,844 (2 November 1997) on 65 screens.
Filming and locations
The filming was done mostly during sunset, and the colours were then readjusted.
Filming for the railway scenes were shot on the Bluebell Railway, disguised as part of the South Eastern and Chatham Railway (the Bluebell is home to a number of SE&CR locomotives, and as part of the old London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, the neighbouring railway to the SE&CR the disguise was not difficult to complete effectively). This is the first film to use the SE&CR for the Wind in the Willows - the railway in most adaptations of the story is the Great Western Railway (although the book itself does not specify this).
The scenes of the outside of Toad Hall were shot at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk.
The external scenes of the Gaol are Dover Castle in Kent.