Zog review: a charming family treat

Zog, the BBC’s latest Julia Donaldson picture book adaptation is another charming festive delight…

Of all the ways to spend half an hour on Christmas Day (dancing an impromptu quickstep with the dog as you remove the turkey from the oven, taking a breather in the loft under the guise of ‘looking for the big tray’, constructing a gravy-retaining wall around your dinner plate perimeter using mashed swede… all the classics) watching Zogon BBC One will be the loveliest.

Zog is an already lovely story, made lovelier here by Magic Light’s lovely animation. Yes, there is a broader range of descriptive vocabulary available, but Zog is a thing of perfectly spherical loveliness; it is lovely from every conceivable angle. 

Zog is the sixth BBC Christmas adaptation of a Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler picture book, followingThe GruffaloThe Gruffalo’s ChildRoom On The BroomStick Man and last year’s The Highway Rat, all made by the same team. This one comes directed by The Gruffalo and Room On The Broom’s Max Lang.

It’s the story of a young dragon—the biggest, if not the most capable in his class—who is eager to do well in his dragon studies and dreams of earning a gold star from his teacher. His frustrated attempts to achieve things that he hasn’t quite mastered (flying, roaring, breathing fire) are wholly relatable. Zog’s travails are as endearing on screen as they are on the page. 

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We’re introduced to young Zog playing make-believe. In handsome CG animation, he imagines himself fully grown and achieving heroic draconic feats. Fighting a stick instead of a knight, Zog dreams of castles, princesses and deadly battles. When he chomps down on his stick opponent and ends up with a mouthful of splinters, it’s our first clue that heroic draconic feats might not quite be where Zog is heading. 

Elsewhere in the kingdom, a young girl is growing up also frustrated by her limitations. Unlike Zog, these aren’t related to age, but to class and gender. As a royal princess, Pearl is expected to spend her days flower arranging and embroidering cushions. What she wants to do is heal the sick as a doctor. 

Accident-prone Zog gives Pearl her first—and later, several further—opportunities to do just that. He gets into multiple slapstick scrapes that she kindly heals. A tentative friendship grows, and when Zog and his classmates are tasked with kidnapping their own princesses, Pearl jumps at the opportunity to escape her life of restriction and be his willing ‘captive’. (Zog breaks the bars from the tower door at the first opportunity. This fairy tale was written in 2010, so there’s no dodgy Beauty And The Beast stuff to be skated over here.) 

What follows is a story about overturning expectations, taking charge of your destiny and striking out on your own path instead of following the herd. (Is it a herd of dragons? A smaug? A flap?) 

Zog follows in the fairy tale-subverting footsteps of Shrekand Princess Smartypants by turning established convention on its head to tell a heart-warming modern story. Why should knights and dragons and princesses fit into the same dull niches? There must be a way for everybody to be fulfilled.

There is, and toppling stereotypes isn’t the only message here. There’s also a pacifist lesson about how generations-learned conflict is a big waste of energy. There’s plenty of it already in the world, and collaboration and tolerance gets more done. It’s a year-round message that always bears repeating.

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The animation, CG styled endearingly to look like stop-motion, is a treat, as are the 3D versions of Axel Scheffler’s characters. The dragons are cosier, cuter and more colourful versions of Maurice Sendak’s wild things—there shouldn’t be any nightmares after this airs—and feel as though they have real weight. Pearl (voiced by Patsy Ferran) is less distinctive in both movement and design, but the overall impression is one of bouncing colour and dynamism. 

Sir Lenny Henry leads the voice cast as the narrator speaking in comforting rhyme, with help from W1Aand Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’s Hugh Skinner as Zog, with Tracey Ullman as Madame Dragon, and—in a cheeky bit of stunt casting—Game Of Thrones’ Kit Harington as dragon-fighting knight Sir Gadabout. 

With only half an hour to fill, there clearly wasn’t a need to develop more of the background characters, or expand the story to include a real villain or home lives. Zog’s classmates are mostly silent and we’re shown none of Pearl’s family, just her stern governess. It’s plenty for what’s required, and ensures that the story is kept streamlined and simple for very young audiences. 

Overall, it’s a delight. This recent BBC tradition of showing a Donaldson/Scheffler animation every Christmas? To quote Zog, what a good idea!