Director Terry Jones fills the current void in family entertainment with his witty and whimsical version of Kenneth Grahame's children's classic, The Wind in the Willows. Along with a number of his Monty Python cohorts, he infuses this Edwardian paean to friendship and nature with zany humor and childlike innocence. Just hearing timid Mole, played winningly by Steve Coogan, affectionately address Eric Idle's earnest Rat as 'Ratty' is enough to plant a feature-length smile on your face.

Wisely eschewing elaborate animal costumes, Jones and his production and costume designer, James Acheson, go for country gentlemen's attire with creature accents, such as huge jodhpurs and pale green makeup for Jones' flamboyant Toad, and cricket whites and whiskers that crinkle under duress for Rat. Mole's baggy corduroys define him as much as his snub nose and tiny, steel-rimmed glasses.

Not since Mary Poppins has a movie as effectively conjured the magic of a fairy-tale England, with idyllic countrysides and lovable, eccentric characters. Incredibly, Jones maintains this lyric tone throughout, avoiding both sentimentality and camp. The marvelous cast, including Nicol Williamson as the intimidating Badger, Antony Sher as the sinuously evil Chief Weasel, and John Cleese in top form as Toad's lawyer from hell, play it deliciously straight.

Jones, who also wrote the screenplay, expands the adventure element of the original by creating a pack of treacherous yuppie Weasels who plot to destroy the peaceful estate of Toad Hall and turn it into a Weasels-only industrial wasteland. Mole, Rat and Badger band together to protect their homes and their pastoral way of life, but their primary obstacle turns out to be their good friend Toad, an amusing but self-indulgent spendthrift with a passion for that newfangled invention, the motorcar. Toad slowly gives up Toad Hall to the Weasels in exchange for money to buy more cars, which he totals in less time than it takes him to snag a bug with his lengthy, prehensile tongue (a nice special effect). But, unlike The Cherry Orchard, this tale has a happy ending.

Among the film's most delightful conceits are Michael Palin as a talking sun who, with all due apologies to Toad (with whom he is conversing), must set; and the casual display of properly dressed couples with bunny ears and cotton tails making out along the lush hillsides. There is also a poignant clock with a human face buried in the rubble of Mole's Weasel-destroyed home, who can barely mouth 'tea time' anymore.

Some of the film's action scenes drag on a little long, such as Toad, Mole and Rat's unintentional hijacking of a train, but, for the most part, they are cleverly done. With its affecting score, original production numbers and vibrant color, The Wind in the Willows creates a make-believe world that is hard to leave.

--Wendy Weinstein