If The Magic Roundabout found a following with stoned hippies finding entirely imaginary drug references scattered throughout the five minute episodes, then the 1972 feature film version, Dougal and the Blue Cat, is definitely the Bad Acid version – chock full of freaky, disturbing scenes that would have kids squealing with delight even as their tripping older siblings climbed the walls.
Featuring all your old favourites (including the kids who never seemed to appear outside the opening titles), the film introduces a new character to the Magic Garden – Buxton, the sinister blue cat of the title, who entrances everyone except the cynical Dougal, who imagines that he’s up to no good. And indeed, that’s the case, as Buxton enters the realm of the Blue Voice and – after passing a series of tests – is declared the Blue King, with the mission to rid the world of all other colours. As Florence, Zebedee, Brian and the rest of the gang are held captive, only Dougal can save them.
Appearing on DVD for the first time, the film looks great, with vibrant colours that leap from the screen. The animation is as crude as ever, but the film more than compensates for this with the wild visuals and rampant imagination on display. The film flips from familiar Magic Roundabout locales to weirdly creepy nightmare sequences that have a Tim Burton flavour to them, and even takes time out for a trip to the moon in a sequence that must have influenced Nick Parks when he was planning A Grand Day Out. And for a feature film based on such slight shorts, it holds together surprisingly well from start to finish.
Now for the controversy. One thing I hated as a kid with British shows was the single narrator who behaved as though he were reading a story, describing things that you could see happening all too clearly. All British kid’s shorts did it – The Clangers, Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine… and The Magic Roundabout. Like referring to TV shows as being ‘by’ the writer, it felt like a dated theatrical hangover that made UK shows look much less modern than their US counterparts. In the case of this show, it was well known that Eric Thompson simply watched the shows and made up new stories to go with them, his personal xenophobia making him refuse to listen to the French originals. It’s a similar level of xenophobia that has made it the perceived wisdom with British commentators that this version must be superior to the original French.
Well, this DVD allows you to find out, because the French version – Pollux et le Chat Bleu – is also included here. And guess what? Strip away childhood nostalgia, and it’s much better. With each character played by a different actor, it’s livelier, louder and actually seems to move at a faster pace – subtitles aside, this is the version that most kids would prefer to Thompson’s dry, laconic but sometimes overly indulgent narration, which feels very staid in comparison, even with the concession of having Fenella Fielding memorably voice the Blue Queen in the film (Thompson provides all other voices, and yes, still needlessly adds things like “… said Florence” and “Brian, Ermentrude and Dylan made the bed” as if working for radio).
You may violently disagree with my thoughts, but the great thing about this DVD is that you can now decide for yourself, with both versions to choose from. Also on the disc are interviews with Thompson’s wife Phyllida Law and daughter Emma Thompson, Fenella Fielding and, God help us, Mark Kermode.
Bizarre, beautiful and fun for young and old alike, Dougal and the Blue Cat is well worth a look, and for those of you who think you’re familiar with it, this DVD offers a whole new perspective for you. Recommended.