This week’s Guest Favourite Post – brought to you by @ejrdavies is a film I’m yet to see, and that’s what is so great about guest posts – a bigger variety of films and voices. If you want to contribute a piece to the site (about a non-Disney film) let me know via the usual ways.
Growing up, there were three VHS tapes which were on almost constant rotation in my house. The first, was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which I watched with my dad and my sister once a night, every night for four months. The second was a tape on which I had recorded five or six episodes of The Simpsons, back in the days when six episodes represented a pretty healthy chunk of the entirety of the show, and which I watched so often that I have probably seen the episode “Principal Charming” more times than any other human being. For a child growing up in the early ’90s, neither of these tapes would be out of the ordinary, even if the latter would give that child an unusually early, largely subconscious knowledge of key shots from The Terminator, Gone With The Wind and Vertigo, amongst others.
The third tape was the most watched, and it contained the 1970 adaptation of the TV series The Magic Roundabout, Dougal and the Blue Cat. As with the series, the film version was directed by Serge Danot, then completely re-written and dubbed over by Eric Thompson, who basically made up the story and the characters because he had no access to either the original French scripts or translations. As such, whilst the film version has a much bigger scope than its television counterpart – being an epic 85 minutes long rather than five – it still maintained the same dry, faintly world-weary tone of the series, even as it told a story about deceit, intolerance and world domination.
The story begins with the arrival of Buxton (who has a Derbyshire accent, appropriately enough), a blue cat who arrives in the realm of the magic garden and is soon the talk of the town. Everyone is fascinated by him, with the exception of Dougal, the shaggy dog who thinks there is something very suspicious about the interest Buxton displays towards the old abandoned treacle factory nearby. His concerns prove well-founded: Buxton plans to take over the world and turn everything blue since, in the words of the disembodied Madame Blue (voiced by Fenella Fielding), “blue is beautiful, blue is best.”
Dougal and the Blue Cat was and remains one of my favourite animated films, though looking back on it it’s hard to determine just what it was that made it so fascinating to me as a child. Not because the film’s bad, it’s actually really terrific, but because it has such a thoroughly odd sensibility. Visually, the film is very sparse, jagged and pointedly unnatural, whilst the creatures that populate it look ever so slightly off-kilter, both in their appearance and the jerky movements necessitated by the stop-motion. The sense of humour, meanwhile, is incredibly dry and clearly geared towards an older audience (upon waking, Dougal shouts “Vote Conservative!” to illustrate his sense of disorientation) familiar with some of the touchstones for Dougal’s slightly tired and browbeaten character, which is very reminiscent of the put-upon, caustic wit of Tony Hancock. Throw in a plot that veers from knockabout silliness to real nightmare fuel and you’ve got a film that seems less for kids than adults with a very skewed sensibility.
This is the key to why the film left such an indelible impression upon my young, malleable mind as well as why it remains such a charming film. It’s the eerie disconnect between the gentle, wry and whimsical tone of Thompson’s narration and the creepy, at times nightmarish quality of the film’s visuals and atmosphere. The spare, empty landscapes and slightly awkward movements produced by the stop-motion animation are somewhat alienating since they draw attention to the process by which it was made, but they also give it a faintly dreamlike feel. This is heightened by Thompson’s voice, which has an archness to it which creates a further distance, ultimately making the film feel like a dream one of its characters might be experiencing.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the sequence in which Buxton the Blue Cat passes a series of trials in order to become an all-powerful king. Buxton’s a curious villain since he’s depicted as being more pathetic than sinister; he spends much of the film complaining, and even when he isn’t he affects a whining tone that doesn’t quite fit with the idea of him being a mastermind of a plot to take over the world. Much of his quest to become king sees him getting increasingly scared and frantic as he stares down a couple of deadly traps, most notably an autonomous crossbow which follows him around as he tries to come up with crucial passwords, as well as a succession of ghoulish, twisted masks which fly at the camera in a manner that would not have been out of place during the hypnosis/torture scenes at the end of The Ipcress File.
It’s an incredibly weird sequence that actually makes Buxton out to be pretty sympathetic, if only because there’s a sense – reinforced by the end of the film – that he doesn’t really understand the forces that he is dealing with, even as he uses them to advance his own interests. It also contains most of the elements that make the film so special: it’s scary, tense, wryly funny and hints at a thematic subtext about both the danger of hubris and the myopic nature of intolerance. It’s that strange fusion of one man’s visuals and another man’s voice which blend together to create something utterly unique. It’s a truly bizarre film, and I love it as much now at 26 as I did at 6.
Edwin Davies is a blogger, podcaster and all round gent. He has a blog that can be found here, and it’s well worth checking out. As his his twitter account. So basically, just a get a bit of Edwin in your life. His favourite film is not Spiceworld.