With the all-conquering stage and screen success of War Horse still fresh in the memory, a new Michael Morpurgo adaptation is a big deal. But Mimi and the Mountain Dragon is a different sort of proposition. It’s a 25-minute family-friendly animation scheduled to go out on BBC One on Boxing Day afternoon and Northern Soul had a sneak peek at a screening earlier this month.

Originally a 2014 picture book written by Morpurgo and illustrated by Helen Stephens, it’s the story of a fairy tale village in the snowy Swiss Alps where everyone lives in fear of the local dragon. Everyone, that is, except little Mimi, who befriends and protects the scaly beast’s cute offspring which brings matters to a head once and for all.

Yes, one suspects that its makers cursed when they saw this year’s not-entirely-dissimilar John Lewis Christmas advert. Nevertheless, Mimi and the Mountain Dragon is warm, gentle and unshowy, reminiscent of the classic 1982 Snowman animation which seems to have become the forebear to the current swathe of festive children’s book adaptations. Strikingly, this is also told almost entirely with orchestral music – again, shades of The Snowman – aside from sparing narration provided by Morpurgo himself. It’s likely to go down a treat.

The northern preview screening was at HOME in Manchester with Morpurgo in attendance on a Q&A panel as well as writer Owen Sheers (who scripted the adaptation), composer Rachel Portman (who provided the score) and picture-book maker Emily Gravett (whose concept designs shaped the look of the film). Also on the panel was Kristian Smith, managing director of Liverpool’s Leopard Pictures which co-produced the film with animators Factory Create, based in Altrincham, with many of the team present in the audience. The whole project has a decidedly northern slant, with the score being recorded at MediaCity with members of the Hallé choirs, including the singing voice of young Mimi, who was also present at the event and took a special round of applause.

During the Q&A, Morpurgo revealed that the story, which has some basis in fact, was something he happened upon quite by accident one day during a holiday with his wife to the Swiss village of Zuos in the Engadine valley. He explained: “We’d had a hot chocolate and we were walking through the snow in this little village. We came around the corner to the village square and there was a school there. Then the most extraordinary thing seemed to happen. There were sounds of shooting coming from behind the school. It was very alarming to start with, but we walked further up the square and we suddenly saw all these kids, primary school children, cracking riding whips.”

BBC’s Mimi and the Mountain DragonUpon asking a teacher what was going on, Morpurgo was told that they were practising. “I said, ‘what are you practising for?’. She said, ‘We have this procession through the village every year when we drive away the evil spirits with the cracking of whips and the ringing of cowbells and the waving of flaming torches’. I thought ‘how wonderful, I’ll write a story about that’.”

For the story in question, the real-life Swiss procession became ‘Drumming the Mountain Dragon’, and the narrative centred on a signature Morpurgo device, a young child befriending an (in this case, fantasy) animal. In book form Mimi and the Mountain Dragon was well received, and discussion soon turned to creating a screen version (at the screening, all concerned were adamant that the process has taken a total of eight years, which suggests that it began before the book was even published).

Initially, Portman and Sheers came on board, with Sheers expressly charged with writing a script that could inspire Portman’s score. Sheers is perhaps best known as a poet but, according to Morpurgo, “we wanted a great poet, not just someone who could adapt it for the screen but someone who knew words, the sound of words and the music in words”. Sheers himself said: “I think I was attracted to this project because the end result would have so few words. When Rachel and Michael came to me and they explained that this was going to be told through orchestral music, for someone who always works in words I was kind of fascinated about the role of the writer in that situation. My job was to adapt the story and to write it to fuel Rachel so that she could write the music.” Only later would animators become involved. Sheers said: “At the very end of the process, on the whole all of those words that I wrote would sort of melt away into images and music, and I loved that idea.”

BBC’s Mimi and the Mountain DragonAfter years of development, the project found its way to Leopard Films, who brought Gravett on board as a concept designer. An organic back-and-forth process began, with Portman writing music to an early animatic, virtually a moving storyboard. Her score is suitably stirring and soaring, and not for nothing is the finished film a product of BBC Music. After the screening, Hallé Orchestra chief executive John Summers made an open plea for a performing version to be put together and was told that it’s hoped this will indeed happen.

It seems to have become something of a labour of love for everyone involved, all of whom seem pleased and proud of the result. Morpurgo declared himself to be “overwhelmed” by it and was full of praise for Portman’s music and the way in which Sheers’ script has amplified the power of his original story. In terms of what that story is fundamentally about, Morpurgo insisted that “it’s about understanding and that doesn’t, or shouldn’t, just happen at Christmas”. Sheers went even further, saying that “I wanted this to be a counter-narrative to all of the stories we hear about othering and about fear of the ‘other’. That’s not a great invention – there are lots of stories in that vein – but God, we need more of them now.”

Mimi and the Mountain Dragon is a charming faux-folk tale which has a message for young viewers in these turbulent times. Only time will tell if it becomes a perennial but, do you know, it just might.

By Andy Murray


Mimi and the Mountain Dragon will be broadcast on BBC One at 3.20pm on Boxing Day