A boy carves a wooden Native American sitting in a canoe with the intention of setting him to sail (more like float) from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.
With a carved message on the bottom asking people to please let him continue his trip, ‘Paddle To The Sea’ navigates his way through natural and man-made bodies of water. It will be a long journey with many obstacles to overcome, but with luck ‘Paddle’ will make it to his final destination.
I find it amazing how many adults remember seeing Paddle To The Sea as a child in school. It appears watching Paddle To The Sea was almost a rite of passage of childhood for a certain generation of children.
That was my first introduction to it. I recall it being a real treat being in elementary school and the teacher announcing to us that we would be watching a movie. It was usually the last day of school before vacation.
I assume getting a ‘movie day’ in school was due to teachers feeling there was little point in giving us regular school work or to attempt to start any new lessons, since we are all hyped for it being the last day of school. So, it would be better to have us all relax and show us a an innocent short film.
Paddle To The Sea became a standard film to show to children throughout the 1970s and 80s on lazy school days. One that would end up being nominated for an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film.
Much like The Red Balloon, (another short film that I was shown in elementary school, I guess all school libraries in the U.S. had a reel of these). The old film projector was wheeled into class, the screen was pulled down, the lights turned off, the shades pulled and all the kids gathered around to watch this flickering gift.
It’s kind of embarrassing I can remember very vividly watching these short films, but have trouble remembering actual educational lessons I learned back then.
Watching Paddle To The Sea as a child was like gathering around a campfire and listening to a magical, fantastical tale. Of course, now decades away from that innocent time of youth when such simple things could make such a lasting impression, Paddle doesn’t have the impact it once did. It plays as much more as a quaint fable, than the adventurous yarn I always remembered it as. I recall thinking this film was like an epic Cecil B. DeMille production! That perspective has changed, but it’s still very entertaining and hit me with a nostalgic rush when I revisited it.
Based on the 1941 children’s book by Holling C. Holling, the only voice we hear throughout is the narrator describing what is happening to our wooden hero.
There are some wonderful images of the little carved canoe navigating streams, rapids, nearly destroyed by freighters. The film makes a small, innocent object have an adventurous voyage in a child’s eyes. We watch from ‘Paddle’s’ perspective as he travels down rivers, past boats, and the animals that he encounters. His battles with the weather, waterfalls, forest fires, polluted bodies of water, eager kids who spot him and want him for themselves.
You begin rooting for ‘Paddle’ to get past his latest hurdle that blocks his way to his destination. ‘Paddle’ takes on the personality of silent perseverance and his journey becomes a spiritual mission.
The film was directed by Bill Mason, a naturalist, artist, author and filmmaker. It’s clear a lot of effort was put into the making of this short film. Reading about the work Mason put into filming certain scenes and the lengths he went to get his shots is quite impressive and pays off beautifully.
I somehow envision he and the crew got some strange looks filming their little wooden star. Luckily, his effort paid off and results in some indelible images in Paddle To The Sea, which I can attest have stuck with me all these years later.
I wonder, if children were shown Paddle To The Sea today, would they remember it decades later like we all do. It’s certainly not a fast-moving glossy, animated extravaganza like Pixar films that kids are used to seeing today. However, I think it’s such a timeless, uncomplicated story that it will hook them in. Perhaps they could slow down long enough to give it a chance and get wrapped up with the story of ‘Paddle’.
It’s a wonderful legacy Paddle To The Sea has had. It left an impression on millions of children. Many I’d bet haven’t seen it since grade school, a point in their lives when it was still a huge accomplishment to tie their own shoes by themselves. Yet, they still remember the simple adventurous tale of the little wooden Indian in his canoe.
If you have any doubt of the imprint it left on so many, just look over the comments and recollections people have shared on the YouTube page that has the film.
One personal quirk I have is whenever I’m by a river I have to throw a small stick or leaf into it to see how far it will float and travel. I think that must have come from my early influence of seeing Paddle To The Sea.
Here’s the film! Sit back and enjoy!!!