Superworm is a charming addition to the animated adaptations of Axel Scheffler and Julia Donaldson’s children’s books that have become a BBC festive tradition, stretching back to The Gruffalo in 2009. The new film, as usual made by Martin Pope and Michael Rose, combines Donaldson’s pleasing rhymes and likeable characters with a story diverting enough to hold the grown-ups’ attention after a proper lunch. Superworm is a short book, written almost entirely in rhyming couplets, but here it is deftly expanded to last 25 minutes without losing its appeal. Other adaptations might be tempted to add lots of dialogue, but Pope and Rose are confident enough to trust in wordless visual sequences, so the original book isn’t diluted too much.
We meet the eponymous annelid (voiced by Matt Smith), a fitness-loving, unusually long worm who specialises in using his body to help the local bug ’n’ slug community. Donaldson has said she was partly inspired by Batman. A Rocky-style training montage establishes us in a colourful world, where slugs, snails, spiders and toads live in harmony beneath the plants. Superworm is a kind of combination of personal trainer, emergency services and playground. Bees use him as a skipping rope, children slide down him like a helter skelter; he becomes a lasso to save a toad that has wandered into traffic. His best friend is Butterfly (Patricia Allison), whom he has known since her larval days. There is a more complex dynamic between them than you might expect. Although he is a popular and amiable chap, Superworm also knows he’s a hero and isn’t above a bit of preening, while Butterfly is an equally valuable member of the community who feels that she doesn’t always get the credit she deserves. Female viewers may sympathise.
Far less decent than both of them is the dastardly Wizard Lizard (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who gives the villain a delicious snicker), who is obsessed with treasure. Although his servant Crow (Rob Brydon) is useful for general henchman duties, like transport and intimidation, he’s not much help when it comes to excavation. A worm would be handy. They kidnap Superworm and Lizard puts a spell on him using a magic flower. Soon he is toiling beneath the soil, looking for shiny items for Lizard to add to his collection. Led by Butterfly, the other creatures team up to launch a rescue mission. It works.
The celebrity voice actors don’t have much to do. Brydon and Smith will have had more onerous days in the booth. Most of the speaking is done by the narrator, Olivia Colman, who reads beautifully. It says something about the lure of Donaldson, and possibly the Beeb, that an Oscar winner can be roped in for a 25-minute film for children. Colman has said that, like millions of parents, she has spent many hours reading Donaldson’s books to her children. Like the previous films in this series, Superworm proves that sometimes the best presents come in small packages.