It feels like the generational chasm has only been widening in the last few years, but the animated adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s Mimi and The Mountain Dragon seems to cut through this divide, as it garnered rapturous applause from everyone in the room at its preview screening at HOME cinema earlier this month.
Over the last 8 years a formidable team of writers, producers, musicians, conductors, and everything in between have been crafting and bringing to life this delightful book. The 2D animation is set at the foot of a mountainous terrain, in a small snowy village, following the story of a young girl who seeks to reunite a baby dragon with its mother. Morpurgo was inspired during a holiday to Switzerland with his wife where they both heard quite loud noises coming from behind a school; upon a short investigation they saw these school children “cracking whips” and “waving flaming torches to ward off evil spirits” as part of a cultural procession — and with that small inspiration, a story was born.
With its nostalgic pencil strokes and warm illustrations, Mimi and The Mountain Dragon sets aside the complex high tech renderings of 3D animation and CGI, that we have become so accustomed to. Instead it successfully pulls at our heartstrings with only the remarkable orchestral music from none other than Oscar award-winning composer Rachel Portman, who composed the original score that was performed by the talented BBC Philharmonic in Media City, Salford.
Phil Chalk, Managing director of Factory, discussed the challenge of creating an animation which relied almost entirely on the music to take the viewer on the narrative journey.
“Normally it’s about the actors performances, and then we draw inspiration from that and that drives the animation. But in this instance it came in a different way.” And this difficulty was discussed across various members within the team but in many ways it enriched the story even more, giving it a surprising depth that many would not expect from a children’s boxing day special.
Even opting out of using sound effects this project really left all the bells and whistles at the door and allowed the simplicity of the animation to truly speak for itself. Phil Chalk said that they “needed to brave with it” and “let Rachel’s score carry it all” which is a major departure for them when looking at Factory’s previous projects.
During the Q&A Owen Sheers, the writer of the screenplay, talked about how this was a “story of a girl who comes into voice” and “the growth of a song” as his words “melt away into images and music”. Here we see, and hear, a story of community and togetherness; a story which outwardly rejects fear and specifically a fear of the unknown “other”. It provides a counter-narrative to the increasingly ingrained and alarming myths in our society about that which we do not know or understand, a message which is enveloped within the true spirit of Christmas.
Mimi and The Mountain Dragon was a breathtaking viewing and listening experience, watching it felt like I was turning the pages of the book. It kept its authenticity and its heart, but as Michael Morpurgo himself said “the story changed under Owen’s pen” and I can imagine that with each thoughtful addition, from the illustration itself all the way to post production, the story continued to evolve and deepen.
Someone in the audience asked the panel at the Q&A “when do you know its finished?” and Owen Sheers responded with the famous quote from French Poet Paul Valery, “a poem is never finished but merely abandoned”, to illustrate that there would have always been more to add. But I would say that this short animation was as complete as it could have possibly been, and I’m sure that all those who watch it on Boxing Day on BBC One will agree.