Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler are Britain’s answer to Dr. Seuss.
Ever since publishing “The Gruffalo” — written by Donaldson and illustrated by Scheffler — in 1999, the duo have delighted millions of children with their stories of robber rats, wandering whales and fantastical fish.
In 2009, U.K. production company Magic Light Pictures turned “The Gruffalo,” about a little mouse who ventures into a deep, dark wood, into a 30-minute animated special voiced by James Corden and Helena Bonham Carter. It turned out to be the first of nine animated adaptations of Donaldson and Scheffler’s works.
(Magic Light also manage licensing for the books and films. In Britain alone, the Donaldson/Scheffler empire includes theme park rides, exhibitions, toys and educational materials. “It’s quite frightening,” says Scheffler of what he calls “Gruffalo madness.”)
Their latest holiday special, which airs in the U.K. on Christmas Day and will be rolled out on TVOD platforms in the U.S. in spring next year, is based on Donaldson and Scheffler’s 2016 book “Superworm,” about a wriggly caped crusader who finds himself abducted and bewitched by a bling-loving lizard.
“I’d long been thinking I must write a bug story, a sort of creepy-crawly story,” Donaldson says, citing as inspirations both Scheffler’s predilection for drawing insects (Scheffler has also written and illustrated dozens of children’s books solo, in which creepy-crawlies feature regularly) and her young grandson’s obsession with Batman.
In the 30-minute animated version, which is directed by Sarah Scrimgeour and Jac Hamman, Superworm is voiced by “The Crown’s” Matt Smith while Olivia Colman (“The Lost Daughter”) narrates. “It’s brilliant, they’re all so good,” Donaldson says of the A-list talent who line up to star in her stories (as well as Bonham Carter and Corden, actors including Gillian Anderson, Simon Pegg and Martin Freeman have all previously lent their voices to Magic Light adaptations of Donaldson and Scheffler’s works).
Although delighted by the cast, the author admits, she’s not always au fait with who’s who: “I’d be terrible in that television program ‘Pointless’ when they ask you what actors were in what; sometimes I’m ashamed to say I haven’t heard of the people,” she reveals. “But then I suddenly realized that Superworm was Prince Philip in ‘The Crown’ and I was sitting there chatting to him. It’s very, very gratifying.”
For Smith, who has also played Doctor Who and is next set to appear in “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon,” part of the appeal of “Superworm” lay in the novelty. “I’ve never done animation and I read this and I thought it was sweet, interesting and silly,” he says.
Colman, meanwhile, like many parents around the U.K., is a superfan. “I love all these books, Julia Donaldson books,” says Colman. “I’ve read [them] to my children over the years. And I love watching them when they’re on the telly. So I was thrilled that they asked me.”
So popular are Donaldson and Scheffler’s books that for Magic Light co-founders Martin Pope and Michael Rose, the challenge is not so much assembling a celebrity cast but paring it down. “The most difficult thing is choosing,” Pope acknowledges. “Because we have a wonderful casting director [Karen Lindsay-Stewart] who puts amazing names forward. Very occasionally people have been too busy. But on the whole I don’t think we’ve really ever had anyone say just a flat ‘No.’ Because probably — I hope — it’s quite a fun job.”
“Superworm” is the first Magic Light animation to have been filmed during the pandemic, with production launching in April 2020. With Scrimgeour and Hamman both based in South Africa while the teams at Magic Light and Blue Zoo Animation Studio, who created the animated sequences, were in the U.K., everyone quickly adapted to working via video calls. “We have to pay tribute here I think to Blue Zoo Animation, who are absolutely phenomenal,” says Pope. “They had 250 people in the studio and within a week, everyone was remote.”
Still, it wasn’t all plain sailing. For Pope and Rose, once standard set visits were verboten, and they sat in on the music recording via Zoom. The cast’s vocal recordings were also a challenge. “When we started you could only have the actor and the engineer in the room,” says Pope. “And so the rest of us were remote and we’ve never really done that before. But the actors were absolutely amazing; [they] rose to it.”
More challenging even than producing a holiday special in a pandemic, however, is turning a 7-minute poem (most of Donaldson’s works are written in rhyming couplets) into a 30-minute story. Although Donaldson is generally sanguine about seeing her work in new mediums, her one stipulation is that the adaptations remain faithful to the text (she has even had it written into her contracts.)
In particular, Donaldson objects to her books being turned into bloated features and in the past has turned down offers from Hollywood companies who wanted to take her characters “and make some ridiculous story up” or turn them into episodic fare such as “The Gruffalo and the Mouse Learn to Count.” “I just really wasn’t keen on that,” she says.
Fortunately, it’s something that Pope and Rose, who have previously adapted eight Donaldson/Scheffler books, including “The Gruffalo” and “Room on the Broom,” have plenty of experience navigating. “I can remember when our children were younger, my daughter asked, ‘What do you do at work?’ And the answer really was, well, we go and sit in a meeting and we discuss, ‘What would the mouse really do? What is the mouse thinking?’ We have to work out what those characters really mean and where are they going.”
“I think the biggest challenge for the team was […] finding the story, mining, bringing out the real emotional and dramatic story arc,” Rose agrees. “And I think that’s what the whole team has done really, really brilliantly. Because this feels like very compelling drama but great fun.”