By: Jo Berry
As parents of young children no doubt already know, Zog is the adorable young orange dragon from The Gruffalo creators Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s 2010 children’s picture book.
Magic Light Pictures turned Scheffler’s drawings into a beautifully animated 2018 Christmas Day special that told how accident-prone Zog tried to earn golden ‘Best Student’ stars at dragon school, while also making friends with princess Pearl, who dreamed of being a doctor when she grew up.
It was a lovely little story, but this Christmas’s follow-up – Zog And The Flying Doctors, based on the sequel book – is a funnier, even sweeter adventure that will entertain adults as much as kids. With its medical theme, it’s also surprisingly poignant viewing for 2020 that, with a lovely story and jovial narration from Sir Lenny Henry, wraps viewers up in the big, warm hug we’ve all been yearning for this year.
The new half hour adventure picks up Zog and Pearl’s story, as the pair – with the help of knight Sir Gadabout – realise their dream of flying around the kingdom helping stricken creatures. They come to the aid of a sneezing lion, a sunburnt mermaid and a unicorn with an inconvenient second horn, but when a storm forces them to land at Pearl’s uncle, the King’s castle, he is horrified that a princess would want to be a doctor and locks Pearl away to learn how to behave properly and royally (which seems to have something to do with embroidery).
Of course, Zog and Gadabout – whose rivalry is ramped up here with lots of little hilarious asides to watch out for that will produce giggles from everyone – try to come to her rescue, usually with calamitous results. Pearl finally gets a chance to escape on her own, but when the king falls ill she decides to stay and care for him instead of making a break for freedom.
Magic Light once again deliver some gorgeous animation for Zog and Pearl’s adventures, and they take full advantage of the wider world of this sequel, filling our TV screens with luscious forests and pretty beaches, the grand castle, a lion’s draughty cave and smaller details such as the mermaid’s shiny scales (and very painful-looking sunburn – wear a hat, kids) and the dainty cakes surrounding Pearl in her locked castle bedroom.
The characters themselves are gorgeous to look at too, in keeping with Axel Scheffler’s original sketches that children cherish but brought to vivid life by the animators, from Pearl, Gadabout and the King to Pearl’s severe governess (and her cuddly cat) and, of course, big, bumbling Zog, who gives How To Train Your Dragon’s Toothless some serious competition for the title of Cutest Dragon Ever.
As well as Henry’s narration, there is fun voice work from the Zog and the Flying Doctors cast, which includes Rob Brydon as the king, Patsy Ferran as Pearl, Hugh Skinner as Zog, Mark Bonnar as Unicorn, Alexandra Roach as Mermaid, Lucian Msamati as Lion and Daniel Ings as Sir Gadabout (taking over from Kit Harington, but you won’t notice as Gad mainly grunts and snorts).
It’s Julia Donaldson’s bright, sparkling rhyming prose that ties it all together, of course, and hers will be the words that little fans will recite endlessly after multiple viewings (like her books, the animated adaptation is one that kids will go back to again, and again and – be warned, parents – again).
Woven throughout her story, as Pearl firmly decides to be a doctor despite being told she can’t, is the empowering idea that we should all have the chance to be who we want to be. It’s hard to believe it still needs to be said but yes, little girls really can grow up to be doctors and scientists just like Pearl and in this year especially, we have all been reminded just how important those jobs truly are, and how amazing the people are who perform them.
And while Donaldson and Scheffler’s book was published back in 2016, and production of this animated special took place last year before anyone had even heard of COVID-19, the fact that we see Pearl and her friends medically tending to those in need is enough to bring a lump to your throat in between the smiles.
Of course, the youngest of viewers may not understand why the grown-ups in the room give a wry chortle as a pigeon takes a socially distanced step away from his sick mate, but they’re sure to understand why the mermaid, lion, unicorn – and eventually, the King – thank Pearl, Zog and Gadabout for their care, and also realise just how special these fantastical flying doctors are as they take to the skies once more.