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I had some difficulty finding information on The Little Convict, because when I saw it, it was called "Toby and the Little Koala" -- probably due to the Disney Channel's attempt to cutesefy the title. The Little Convict was one of those obscure children's films my family owned a bad VHS copy of, and that my brother and I wore out with repeated watchings. It is a very different type of film than my usual childhood preference: science fiction. There are no lasers or aliens, and the movie is actually somewhat educational.

Made in 1979,The Little Convict is a memorable film -- mostly owing to the unique style in which it was filmed. The characters are animated (except for Rolf Harris, who serves as something of a narrator and observer) yet the world is not. The animation is not spectacular; it is rather choppy and grainy, and very two-dimensional. The characters look rather like paper dolls against a realistic diorama. The voices are comical and expressive, and my brother and I often end up quoting from this movie when we are joking around together; much of the film's dialogue is quite snappy and funny. The music is catchy and diverse, ranging from old drinking songs to traditional Aborigine melodies.

The animated portion of the film takes place between two scenes in a fairground, which seem rather bizarre and surreal. The beginning portion shows Mr. Rolf Harris somehow costumed as a three-legged character named Jake the Peg. He does a little song and dance routine and then starts hawking a drawing of a ship. The crowd, while fascinated by a three-legged man, disperses when Harris starts trying to sell his artwork. The only person left is Harris's granddaughter, who says that the picture is "beautiful", and asks to hear its story. Supposedly, the boat in the picture is called The Northern Star, and we segue into the animated part of the film when the ship in the picture starts moving.

The Little Convict tells the story of a small group of British criminals, sent from England to a New South Wales penal colony to serve out their debt to society. Toby, the protagonist of the story, is a skinny thirteen-year-old who was caught assisting robbers. His sister Polly has also been sent over; her crime is never made clear (was she assisting Toby? Did she ask for passage simply to keep an eye on her brother? Was she a prostitute?). Other comrades of Toby include Big George Thompkins (a blacksmith, we don't know what he did, either), Jack Doolan (scoundrel, the film's handsome rogue), Old Dipper (an aging pickpocket), and Silly Billy (a rather dim lad deported for stealing a pig!).

The convicts are definitely the film's sympathetic characters, which gives it something of a subversive edge for a children's film. The penal colony soldier guards are portrayed as cruel and unjust, the two main antagonists being Sgt. Bully Langdon and Corporal Wesley (a.k.a "The Weasel"). These guards preside over the men as they work in the fields (digging rocks out of the soil and cutting down trees). Polly ends up as a servant girl in the home of the colony's leader, General Lightfoot. Lightfoot is not an evil man; rather, he is blustering and oblivious. His wife Augusta is pushy and overdramatic, and tends to order her husband around.

The "little koala" of the Disneyfied title is adopted by Toby when Bully and Weasel shoot its mother. Toby takes the little creature under his wing, and names it "Yo-Yo". The convicts' existence is bearable, if dreary and tiring, until the day a man is killed by a falling tree. The chaos following this event results in George getting locked up, and Jack Doolan escaping and heading for the hills. Poor Toby is left all alone with no companions left save for Yo-Yo. He decides to run away in search of Jack, in hopes that he can help free George. In the outback, Toby soon learns that he is not exactly equipped for wilderness survival. He meets and befriends an Aboriginal boy his own age named Wooloonga. Wooloonga teaches Toby, among other things, that you can find grubs under tree bark that taste like nuts!

Toby finds Jack, and with Wooloonga, they return to the prison camp to right wrongs and defend justice. With the help of the distractions created by Yo-Yo, a barrel of rum, and Wooloonga's well-aimed boomerang, the convicts manage to free George. Good thing, too, because a fire breaks out in the general's house! Toby and co. manage to rescue Augusta Lightfoot and Polly from the fire, and the general is so impressed with their bravery that he grants them their freedom.

We then return to the fairground, where Rolf Harris's little granddaughter is watching the carousel. Live-action versions of all the animated characters appear on the horses, and Granddaughter names each of them in a squeaky little voice. Definitely a weird scene.

I don't know what this film was rated officially, but if it were up to me I'd give it a PG for mild violence. I enjoyed it when I was about 10 years old, but kids today might be put off by the grainy animation and lack of pop culture sensibilities.

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