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"The Gruffalo": Thank Goodness There IS Such a Thing as a Gruffalo

by on September 5, 2011

Don't you know? There's no such thing as a Gruffalo...or is there?Based on the children’s book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler, the CGI animated adaptation of The Gruffalo has an entertainment value that far outweighs its short length and modest budget. It is winning, charming entertainment for viewers of all ages, sweetening the educational moral with the same wit and cleverness that its lead character demonstrates throughout.

That lead character is a quick-witted mouse who avoids becoming a midday meal for a fox, an owl, and a snake by telling them he’s meeting a fearsome creature called a Gruffalo. However, the mouse’s repeated belief that “There’s no such thing as a Gruffalo” is soon proven false when he actually does meet the Gruffalo, who is exactly as fearsome as the mouse made him out to be. It takes all his wits to save him, and kids will enjoy the mouse’s grand joke that not only keeps him from becoming the Gruffalo’s dinner, but even drives the Gruffalo to seek more fruitful pastures elsewhere.

It may lack the glitz or glamour that one would find in a short film by Pixar or DreamWorks, or even the new CGI Road Runner shorts from Warner Bros. Animation. However, The Gruffalo definitely makes the most of what it does have. The short has a rather slow, meandering pace and is perfectly happy to spend a few minutes just following small furry wildlife through the environment it’s constructed for them. I consider the quirky pacing to be a fun and distinctive artistic choice, although some more accustomed to the faster pace of most modern kids’ cartoons might think that The Gruffalo is boring or too slow. It’s also a testament to how far CGI has advanced that the modest TV budget of this production looks and feels like the original book drawings turned into three-dimensional objects. The movie’s success at capturing the designs of the book is probably one major reason why the adaptation is as successful as it is. There is only one moment when the animation falls a little short: a fast-action scene when the mouse is attempting to escape the Gruffalo’s clutches after encountering him for the first time. However, even this is executed effectively enough, and the short doesn’t have much use for fast-twitch action anyway.

Don't worry, he's in even less danger than Jerry, reallyThe animation is complemented by a terrific voice cast of top-flight British acting talent. James Corden gives the mouse just the right mix of fear and bravado to sell the part, while Robbie Coltrane mixes sharp and sweet to make the Gruffalo threatening enough to be credible but not so much as to frighten the target audience unduly. Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, and Rob Brydon all seem to be having far too much fun as the fox, the owl, and the snake, respectively. Finally, Helena Bonham Carter provides a warm, maternal narration as the squirrel who tells the story of the Gruffalo to her children to soothe their minds after a close call with a hawk. In general, I’m quite impressed at the way The Gruffalo can handle concepts of danger and peril for its prey animal characters. It is perfectly clear that the squirrel narrator and the mouse are both just a stone’s throw away from a horrible and sudden end as someone’s dinner, but it’s handled with a light enough touch that it avoids being too gruesome or scary. It’s a neat trick, especially considering how many kids’ cartoons will avoid the subject of danger altogether.

NCircleEntertainment’s DVD of The Gruffalo presents the movie in a sharp anamorphic widescreen with a stereo soundtrack. A “making of” featurette is included, which includes comments by the original creators Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler as well as the animators that brought their book to life. There is also an art gallery of the animators’ design work. Unfortunately, even with all these special features, the entire DVD runs for a little less than 40 minutes, making this a bit of a harder sell even at the budget price it’s going for at most retailers.

The Gruffalo was nominated for a Best Animated Short Academy Award last year, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s ample charms and wonderful performances combine for a thoroughly satisfying experience, even if it is rather a short one.

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