If it’s been a while since you read a children’s book, I have news: princess stories are strictly verboten. Well, princesses exist, but not as you know them. They don’t hang around looking pretty and mooning over princes. They’re resourceful feminists. Rapunzel might be stuck in a tower for the first half of Disney’s Tangled, for instance, but she uses her time to become an expert in astronomy.
Zog and the Flying Doctors, BBC One’s latest Julia Donaldson adaptation and a follow-up to 2018’s Zog, fits neatly into this tradition. Princess Pearl dumped the royal life for a medical career, and zooms around the place tending to sunburnt mermaids, unicorns with extra horns and lions with the flu. Her uncle is so appalled by this that he locks her up in his castle for some enforced flower-arranging, before she proves her worth by curing him of an unsightly case of orange fever.
This is the eighth Christmas adaptation of Donaldson’s stories, and the first one that falls short of being a five-star treat. It looks as gorgeous as ever, with animation by Magic Light Pictures based on Axel Scheffler’s wonderful illustrations. But by dint of being a sequel, it had the reheated feel of so much television in 2020. The characters and images were familiar; Lenny Henry supplied the same soothing but underpowered narration. The rest of the voice cast, including Mark Bonnar as the unicorn and Lucian Msamati as the lion, didn’t have a great deal to do.
And the story itself isn’t really one of Donaldson’s best. I speak as an expert in these matters, having read all of her books to my children approximately 1,000 times each. It lacks the magic of The Gruffalo, the adventure of Stick Man or the wit of The Highway Rat.
There are two other books – The Scarecrows’ Wedding and The Smartest Giant in Town – which would make fabulous adaptations, although perhaps one of them is in the works for next year. And I’m probably being too grinchy about this one. Forgive me, it’s been one of those years. Donaldson is a national treasure, kids will be diverted for half an hour and at least the BBC is doing its best to produce something. I’m trying to teach my children that there is merit in waiting for a programme to appear in the television schedules, rather than chase the sugary hit of instant Netflix. But that approach is starting to feel as old-fashioned as a princess waiting to be rescued.