Dougal and the Blue Cat

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If The Magic Roundabout is a psychedelic trip for kids, its spin-off, Dougal and the Blue Cat, is a wild ride on some pretty bad acid.

Skip this paragraph if you know the backstory, but The Magic Roundabout, a mainstay of UK children’s TV in the 1960s and 1970s, was originally a French cartoon, Le Manège Enchanté, created by Serge Danot. Successful at home, it also got exported around the world, where it went under different names – in Italy La Giostra Incantata, in Germany Das Zauberkarussell and in the USA The Magic Carousel. However, in the UK, unlike most other territories, Le Manège Enchanté didn’t simply get translated into the local language, it got a more complete reworking. This was because Eric (father of Emma) Thompson got his hands on it and he couldn’t speak French. So he simply made up new stories to go with Danot’s visuals for each one of the 441 individual five-minute episodes.

The same applies to this feature-length spin-off, which came in 1970, about halfway through The Magic Roundabout’s run. Thompson took Danot’s film and re-imagined his visuals, adding a whimsical tone to a tale focusing on the adventures of Dougal (Pollux in France), a self-referencing shaggy dog with a humblebragging sense of his own self-importance not unlike that of the comedian Tony Hancock.

Thompson does all the voices and sings the rather sweet and tuneful songs, apart from one song early on that’s in French, betraying the film’s origins, while Fenella Fielding has been drafted in to voice the Blue Queen, which she does in her usual breathy vamp.

Things start in familiar territory. Dougal has had a bad dream and so seeks out magical jack-in-the-box Zebedee for some advice. On the way he meets Brian the snail, best friend and crush Florence and Ermentrude the cow.

While Dougal is recounting his dream set in a scary realm where a Blue Queen rules, a blue cat called Buxton suddenly appears from nowhere and starts throwing his weight around, before himself entering the realm of Dougal’s dream, where he sets off on a megalomaniacal plan to eliminate all the colours in the world apart from blue and imprison or eliminate everyone. The Magic Roundabout characters wind up in a dungeon in chains and only Dougal, disguised as a blue dog called Peter (a joke: Blue Peter is a famous British children’s TV show), can set them free. Deep breath.

Close up of the Blue Cat
Beware of the Blue Cat

As the story progresses and the colour blue starts to predominate, the visuals also shift, from bubblegum colours on sparse backgrounds to something more expressionist, angular, busy and starkly lit. The original style of stop-motion animation – by Ivor Wood (who’d go on to be a mainstay of British children’s animation with shows like The Adventures of Parsley, The Wombles and Postman Pat) – has been replaced by VM Cahier’s altogether darker interpretation. It fits the nightmarish story very well.

Is this really for kids? We’re talking about an authoritarian takeover, a lack of tolerance for difference, torture and, eventually, something approaching genocide.

Counterculturally inclined adults always had a hankering for the light whimsicality of The Magic Roundabout (there was uproar when its timeslot was shifted from just before the BBC’s Six O’Clock News to earlier), the presence of a bombed-out hippie rabbit called Dylan saw to that almost on its own. It’s also easy to see why this much darker film became a cult favourite – it seems to be about altered states of consciousness – and has stayed one, having been repeatedly re-released on DVD by a host of different companies.

Nick Park is obviously a fan. At one point Dougal somewhat improbably blasts off into space, a prefiguring of Wallace and Gromit’s journey to the Moon in A Grand Day Out. Dougal and the Blue Cat also uses a cinematic noirish soundtrack here and there, something that would become a mainstay of the Wallace and Gromit movies.

It’s an influential movie, then, as well as a good one, with bounce and pace, light and shade, jokes and seriousness, plus songs. The Magic Roundabout has been well served.

Dougal and the Blue Cat – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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