In Julia Donaldson’s fantasy world, it isn’t the damsel who is in distress. It’s the dragon. “Distress” might be too strong a word, but the trainee dragon has an awkward habit of getting himself dinged up. Fortunately, Princess Pearl is always happy to practice her bandaging and care-giving skills in Max Lang & Daniel Snaddon’s Zog, the latest animated short film adaptation of Donaldson’s children’s books from Magic Lantern and the BBC, which screens as part of the Shorts for Tots program at the 2019 New York International Children’s Film Festival.
Zog is the keenest of his class of dragons, but he is also the clumsiest. He yearns for recognition from the dragon head mistress, but he often gets carried away by his own enthusiasm. Through the machinations of fairy tale fate, the progressive Princess Pearl happens to be near whenever he has an owie. She doesn’t care that he’s a dragon and she’s a princess. If truth be told, she would much prefer to give up her sheltered royal life to become a doctor. In fact, they might be able to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.
All of the Donaldson short films are cute and wholesome (The Gruffalos, Room on the Broom, The Highway Rat), but Zog is probably the most entertaining for genre fans, because of the way it gently subverts epic fantasy tropes. They will also appreciate the voiceover work of Kit Harrington (who clearly knows his dragons, from his work on Game of Thrones and in the recording booth for the How to Train Your Dragon franchise) as an equally klutzy knight who comes to “rescue” Princess Pearl.
Patsy Ferran’s warm and clear voice makes Pearl sound appealingly smart, confident, and upbeat, while Sir Lenny Henry serves as the hip narrator. Tracey Ullman supplies the voices of authority as Madame Dragon and Pearl’s governess, with Rob Brydon providing other miscellaneous voices, as he has in previous Donaldson shorts.
Zog is completely appropriate for youngsters, but some adults might honestly prefer it over the Shrek films (the obvious comparisons), because it is not constantly compelled to prove how cool and ironic it is. The Donaldson films are all quite nice, but this is one of the nicest (yet there is some rather subtle black humor peeking out here and there). Recommended without reservations for family viewing, Zog screens as part of Short for Tots, each Saturday and Sunday of this year’s NYICFF (2/23, 2/24, 3/2, 3/3, 3/9, 3/10, 3/16, and 3/17).