From The Grinch to The Gruffalo: how children’s cartoons dominate this Christmas TV season

Nostalgic festive cartoons, like this year’s Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes and Ethel and Ernest, have become primetime festive viewing for children and adults alike. 

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What is your ultimate Christmas film? (If you’re thinking Die Hard, I just dislocated my jaw from yawning so hard.) Home Alone? The Grinch? It’s A Wonderful Life? Whatever it is, it’s probably something you first saw in childhood. Christmas is a season of tradition, repetition and bucketloads of nostalgia – so it’s only fitting that we re-watch childhood favourites year in year out.

But where does that leave those tasked with creating original entertainment for those long winter days spent reclining on the sofa, cringing from Quality Street-induced stomach cramps, staring glassy-eyed at the TV?

Increasingly, producers are turning to classic children’s stories as a way to find a nostalgia-filled winter warmer that will appeal to both adults and children on Christmas Day without resorting to tired repeats. In this year’s schedule alone viewers can choose from new animated adaptations of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, his playfully updated fairy tales in verse, Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Ethel and Ernest, a new story by Christmas’ favourite children’s author, Raymond Briggs.

It’s not entirely a new phenomenon – many of our best-loved Christmas films started out as TV specials. From the Sixties classics Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas to The Snowman (1982) and Father Christmas (1991).

But children’s cartoons haven’t always been a regular staple of Christmas Day programming. A decade ago, it didn’t factor into BBC One’s schedule, which was built around the Christmas specials of Doctor Who and the year’s most popular sitcom, with family films like Chicken Run, Calendar Girls or The Santa Clause 2 beefing out the rest of the day.

On Christmas Day in 2008, BBC One screened a new Wallace and Gromit film, A Matter of Loaf and Death. It was the most-watched show of the day, bringing in over 14.4 million viewers. The astronomical success of an original family-friendly film obviously turned heads, because in 2009, the BBC would commission a landmark film in Christmas programming: The Gruffalo.

It was a big-budget, classy affair at the heart of the BBC’s schedule – with a cast including Helena Bonham Carter, James Corden and Robbie Coltrane, and an enchanting mix of stop-motion and CGI animation intended to entice adults as well as kids, despite the young audience of the picture books. While The Gruffalo didn’t pull in the same numbers as A Matter of Loaf and Death (though it had a solid audience of almost 10 million), it did receive an outstanding critical reception: reviewers for papers as diverse as the Daily Mail and Guardian loved it, and the film was nominated for a BAFTA and an Oscar. This simple children’s story was fawned over by serious adult critics.

Repeated in the same slot the next year, The Gruffalo spawned offspring for years to come. The Gruffalo’s Child premiered on Christmas Day 2011, and other Julia Donaldson adaptations followed suit: Room on the Broom in 2012, Stick Man in 2015, while The Highway Rat is set for Christmas Day 2017. All boasted ratings that suggested a solid adult audience alongside houses with small children.

Other channels picked up on the power of adapting classic children’s books into animated films in the style of their original illustrations: like Channel 4’s The Snowman and the Snowdog in 2012, produced 30 years after The Snowman first premiered.

This year, some adaptations are even marketed primarily at adults. Just take a look at the trailer for Ethel and Ernest, which, emphasising the calibre of its cast and the timelessness of its tale, reads more like a sappy Oscar contender than a lively kids’ story.

But there are some real gems on show this year, too. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt pours life into Helen Oxenbury’s iconic illustrations via the voices of Olivia Colman and Pam Ferris, and Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes delights in its own sheer silliness. Starring Dominic West, David Walliams and Rob Brydon, the latter and weaves together Dahl’s best fairy tales – tweaking only a few words to make Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White best friends in matching wolfskin coats, and Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Cinderella lovers who bond over life’s simple pleasures, like jam. Dahl’s best lines are preserved – and who can resist a line like, “The small girl smiles / One eyelid flickers / She whips a pistol from her knickers”?

Perhaps it’s my own personal nostalgia that draws me to this Dahl adaptation (I devoured the poems as a child). But with their powerful mix of beautiful modern animation, recognisable casts, and genuine childlike playfulness, this year’s Christmas cartoons are sure to win over nostalgic adults and wide-eyed children alike.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

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