It wouldn’t be Christmas without a Julia Donaldson story. Recent years have seen The Gruffalo, Gruffalo’s Child, Room on the Broom and The Highway Rat turned from picture books illustrated by Axel Scheffler into animated gems for TV viewing, each one just 30 minutes long – ideal for sitting down with the sprogs for a light warming treat. This year sees yet another of their children’s books brought to life for primetime Christmas viewing: Zog.
Zog is a young dragon who just wants to be good at dragonning. According to his teacher Madame Dragon (Tracey Ullman), that means flying, roaring and – yes – breathing fire. But Zog, bless his ickle scaly socks, is less Game of Thrones and more Some Mothers Do Ave ‘Em, prone to injuries and accidents like a winged Frank Spencer. It’s a lovely premise, one that balances strength and vulnerability in just the right amount, and opens up all manner of opportunities for finely honed visual slapstick.
With Hugh Skinner voicing Zog with all the earnest charm and ditzy warmth that has made him one of Britain’s most exciting rising stars, that would be enough on its own for a delightful short film, but that’s only half of Zog’s magic. The other belongs to Pearl, a girl who helps patch up Zog after each of his scrapes. She’s smart, medically inclined and all too happy to befriend a mythical beast – and she also happens to be a princess.
Pearl, though, doesn’t much want to be good at princessing, which, according to her family means wearing dresses, arranging flowers and doing embroidery. Voiced by Patsy Ferran with brains and enthusiasm, she comes up with a plan when Zog’s school requires him to do the most dragonny of all things (capture a princess): she lets him capture her so they can fly off and let her be a doctor on the move. But their scheme only puts in motion the wheels of fairytale tradition, as Sir Gadabout (Kit Harington) waits in the wings to rescue her.
That gentle subversion of convention runs right through this tiny adventure – even Sir Gadabout’s name is fantastically observed – and Lenny Henry narrates it with a gentle humour and kindness that’s beautifully apt. Accompanied by René Aubry’s score, which subtly sends up the usual fantastical bombast, what emerges is a fiery tribute to friendship and a progressive celebration of people taking control of their own stories, fashioning their own destinies, whether that means burning things or healing them. A soaring, royal treat for all the family.
Zog is available on BBC iPlayer until 24th January 2019.