Graham Merrill (Bill Travers) is growing tired of his office job and working for the rat race. What he'd really like to do is write his planned book on the Marsh Arabs, but on the way to work each morning something distracts him in a pet shop window: a otter for sale. He believes the otter is watching him go by ever since he dropped a large fish he'd won in a pub raffle by the store window, and when he overhears two potential customers who plan to buy the otter and put him in the circus as a high diver, Graham makes up his mind to give the animal, who he names Mij, a good home. But how good a home can an otter get in London?
Ring of Bright Water was scripted by director Jack Couffer and star Travers, from Gavin Maxwell's bestselling book and like the print version capitalised on the readers' - now viewers' - sentimental attachment to small furry creatures. A tale of a pet hamster wouldn't have captured the imagination quite as readily, and Graham's tropical fish weren't exactly loveable, indeed, Mij polishes them off pretty quickly, so the otter had just the right out of the ordinary factor to appeal. Otters may be a common sight of British wildlife, but there's something about the novelty of getting emotionally close enough to a wild animal so that you are effectively its friend which is particuarly potent in animal stories.
With just about every animal movie from Lassie Come Home to The Black Stallion, the scenery is important, and so it is here. Once Graham's landlady orders him and his new pet off the premises, he sees his chance to leave his old life behind and set of for pastures new. He decides to head off for the north of Scotland, and the landscape is photographed particularly attractively with its rolling hills and the sunlight sparkling on the surface of the sea. En route there's the opportunity for comedy as Mij gets loose on the train carriage and leads Graham to be thrown off when a passenger pulls the emergency cord in panic.
Once they arrive at the tiny village and the even tinier cottage, why, it's like a paradise on Earth. Certainly the cottage needs a lot of work, but you get the impression of a man (and his otter) returning to nature and feeling all the better for it. The locals treat Graham as an eccentric, but the doctor, Mary MacKenzie, is a new friend and finds herself visiting often with her dog, who likes to play with Mij. In the role of Mary is Virginia McKenna, which may tempt you to regard Ring of Bright Water as Born Free with an otter, but any romance between the two humans is never boldly stated. Meanwhile, Mij enjoys himself swimming in the nearby burn.
As cosy as all this is about its subject matter, there is a darker side that raises its head every so often just to let you know Mother Nature is not all as comfortable as Mij's lifestyle. During Spring, a goose is shot dead over the land and its chicks are abandoned, so Graham puts up a "No Shooting" sign to deter any other trigger happy hunters (I wonder if it worked?). This only adds to the cuteness as the chicks follow Graham and Mij around instead; however be prepared for the ending. We have seen Mij get caught in a net and nearly drown while swimming in the sea, but he recovers. Yet what happens to him when Graham goes on a business trip is a little unnecessary and looks like tear jerking to teach the old circle of life lesson. Still, the film is consistently charming and Travers and McKenna make a reliable, thoroughly decent screen couple once more - and so do Travers and Mij. Music by Frank Cordell.