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Literature / The Gruffalo

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The Gruffalo is a 1999 children’s book, written by English writer Julia Donaldson and illustrated by German-born illustrator Axel Scheffler.

Told entirely in rhyme, the book tells the story of a clever mouse walking through a forest in search of a tasty nut is beset by a series of predators, all of who want to eat him. Each time, he manages to scare them off by telling them that he’s on his way to meet a "gruffalo", which he describes in such frightening terms that they all run off, whereupon he chuckles to himself that "there’s no such thing as a gruffalo" — or so he thinks. Eventually, he does meet one which looks exactly as he described, and it wants to eat him too!

The book is easily Donaldson’s most popular, selling over 13 million copies, winning numerous awards and being translated into more than 30 different languages, including four different Scots dialect versions. A highly successful sequel, The Gruffalo's Child, was published in 2004.

Both books would eventually be adapted into animated short film by The BBC that was directed by Max Lang and Jakob Shuh, with the voice cast including James Corden as the mouse, Robbie Coltrane as the Gruffalo, Tom Wilkinson as the fox and John Hurt as the owl. Helena Bonham Carter also stars as a newly-created mother squirrel character narrating the story in a framing device. Nine other of Donaldson & Scheffler's books would go on to get animated adaptations for the BBC.

The Gruffalo uses the following tropes:

  • Accidental Truth: The mouse telling the fox, the owl and the snake that he's going to meet a Gruffalo.
  • Astonishingly Appropriate Interruption: When the mouse first runs into the Gruffalo, he says, "There's no such thing as a Gruffal—oh!".
  • Badass Boast:
    "Good?" said the mouse. "Don't call me good.
    I'm the scariest creature in this wood.
    Just walk behind me and soon you'll see,
    Everyone is afraid of me."
  • Batman Gambit: In the book, this appears to be the mouse's plan to deter predators: he tells the fox, the owl and the snake that he's going to meet a bigger and more dangerous (but imaginary) predator than them, and that each of them is that predator's favourite food. It backfires when his imaginary predator turns out to a.) not be imaginary, and b.) have mouse as his favourite food.
  • Catchphrase:
    • The mouse says, "Doesn't he know? There's no such thing as a Gruffalo!"
    • The Gruffalo's Child says, "I'm not scared".
  • Deadpan Snarker: The Gruffalo in the film, when the snake runs away.
    Gruffalo: [flat] Amazing.
  • Dirty Coward: Played for laughs with the fox, the owl and the snake, and ultimately with the Gruffalo, who all run away in fear when they think a predator is after them.
  • Don't Go in the Woods: Downplayed for the Deep Dark Wood. It's home to lots of creatures which eat mice, but they're only really dangerous to the mouse. In The Gruffalo's Child, the Gruffalo thinks it's home to a "Big Bad Mouse", but it isn't really; he just fell for a regular mouse's trick.
  • Dumb Muscle: The Gruffalo. He's large and beefy, and he's also dumb enough to believe the mouse's lie that everyone's afraid of him instead of the Gruffalo.
  • Fake Danger Gambit: The Guile Hero mouse plays this trope brilliantly, fending off various predators by pretending that he's going to hang out with a bigger and more dangerous predator than them, which he's invented, and which he says preys on each of them. When he then, to his surprise, meets said Big Bad and realises that Big Bad wants to eat him, he succeeds in persuading it to follow him through the forest, in the course of which he meets all the predators he earlier scared off, and they are duly convinced that he really is the Big Bad's friend. The mouse having thus demonstrated that he's the scariest creature in the forest, the Big Bad runs off in terror.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The fox, the mouse and the snake, all of whom invite the mouse to have (respectively) lunch, tea and a feast with them in their respective homes, and all of whom intend him to be the one thing on the menu; the fox traps the mouse against a rock, the owl chases him all over a tree, and the snake wraps himself around the mouse's neck, but they still keep the tone of the conversation light. Averted with the Gruffalo, who doesn't even bother to be polite.
  • Foul Fox: Downplayed; the fox wants to eat the mouse, but that's only because foxes eat mice.
  • Go-to-Sleep Ending: The Gruffalo's Child ends with the child falling asleep next to her already-sleeping father.
  • Interspecies Friendship: When the fox, the owl and the snake all meet the mouse walking with the Gruffalo, each of them assumes it's because the mouse and the Gruffalo are friends. This is the opposite of the truth, but it's precisely what the mouse wants them to think.
  • Mad Libs Catchphrase:
    • The mouse says, "...And his favourite food is [dish made from species of adversary]"
    • The Gruffalo's Child says, "Aha! Oho! X in the snow! Whose is this X and where does it go?"
  • Miles Gloriosus: What the Gruffalo thinks the mouse is. He's right, but it's part of the mouse's Xanatos Speed Chess that he wants the Gruffalo to think he's this, so that the Gruffalo will follow him to see if his Badass Boast is true.
  • Oh, Crap!: The mouse, the snake, the owl and the fox all react in fear, the first time they see the Gruffalo. Also the reaction of the Gruffalo himself, once he's convinced that all the other animals are terrified of the mouse.
  • Ominous Owl: The owl is portrayed as a villain. Justified, since the protagonist is a mouse.
  • Real After All: The mouse makes up the Gruffalo and what he looks like to scare off the fox, the owl and the snake. But then he meets the real Gruffalo and it's exactly as he described it!
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: In The Gruffalo's Child, the child correctly guesses that the Big Bad Mouse doesn't exist, but she thinks it's because her father was trying to trick her, when actually he'd been tricked himself by the regular-sized mouse.
  • Scared of What's Behind You: Played with, in that mouse knows all too well that the other animals are not scared of him but of the Gruffalo, but he figures the Gruffalo is too dumb to realise it.
  • Snakes Are Sinister: Downplayed; like the fox and the owl, the snake wants to eat the mouse justifiably because it's in his nature.
  • Tempting Fate: The mouse does this every time he reminds himself "There's no such thing as a Gruffalo." The Gruffalo later turns out to actually exist.
  • Trademark Favourite Food: The mouse loves a hazelnut, but he also invokes this trope with every other character he meets by claiming that the Gruffalo has a favourite food based on whomever he's talking to.
  • Woodland Creatures: The mouse and all of the predators he meets in the forest.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: In both the book and the film, this is what the mouse resorts to in order to defend himself from the Gruffalo.

Tropes distinct to the animated film:

  • Adaptational Context Change: In the book, the lines beginning "But what is this creature with terrible claws..." are the narrator describing the mouse actually encountering the Gruffalo. In the film, they're the predators comparing notes on what they've been told.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The film expands a good deal on the book, making it a story told by a mother squirrel (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) to reassure her frightened kids, and adding various bits of business involving the things the mouse sees in the forest; the fox, owl and snake literally comparing notes on the mouse and banding up to go and find him; and explicitly showing the mouse's threat of the Gruffalo to be an Indy Ploy.
  • Adaptational Badass: The Gruffalo in the book isn't exactly a wimp, but he's depicted as being about six times the size of the mouse. The Gruffalo in the film is about twenty times the size of the mouse.
  • Art Shift: While most of the short is in 3-D CGI, the thought balloons where the gruffalo is described are drawn in 2-D.
  • Big "NO!": The Gruffalo utters, "NO!" when the mouse finally succeeds in persuading him that he's about to be made into Gruffalo Crumble.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The mouse looks slyly at the camera after scaring the snake away.
  • By the Lights of Their Eyes: The eyes of the fox, under the log, when the mouse's sneezing wakes him up.
  • Framing Story: The film has the story being told by a squirrel to her children. Continued in the sequel.
  • Friend to Bugs: Downplayed in that the mouse isn't beloved by all insects, but when he comes across a line of bugs walking along the forest floor and up a tree where they are being picked off one by one by a woodpecker, he quietly diverts the trail so that the bugs march away from the tree instead.
  • Growling Gut: After he manages to scare off all of the mouse's previous predators, the gruffalo's stomach growls so loudly that it scares birds out of the trees and nearly knocks the mouse over by sheer force. Then, when he manages to scare the gruffalo himself, the mouse's stomach growls, making the gruffalo afraid that the mouse is going to eat him.
  • Indy Ploy: Unlike the book, we see the mouse "invent" the Gruffalo on the fly, inspired by the fox's growl. When he meets subsequent creatures, he adds more features based on their own; the owl has a green spot on its beak which inspires the 'poisonous wart on the end of his nose', etc. Again, it backfires when he meets the real thing.
  • Meaningful Background Event: The book hints at them, with many images of predators and prey, but the film expands on them in a scene where the mouse is walking through a swamp full of creatures eating each other (a bunch of flies follow the mouse, but all but one of them get caught in a spider's web, while the sole survivor gets eaten by a frog; a toad eats a worm.) The crowning example: a trio of water-skaters which are quickly and successively eaten by an unseen fish, whereupon a heron's beak plunges into the water and comes up bearing the resigned-looking fish, which is taken out of frame and, presumably, swallowed.
  • Non-Action Protagonist: The mouse doesn't fight his would-be predators (probably because he physically can't) so instead, he scares them away by claiming he's friends with a monster called the Gruffalo, who eats their species. When it turns out that the Gruffalo does exist, he points out the predators running in fear from the Gruffalo and tricks the Gruffalo into thinking they're afraid of the mouse instead, scaring the Gruffalo.
  • Smug Smiler: Whenever the mouse gets one-up on his enemies he tends to turn into one of these (when the snake is having his Villainous BSoD the mouse even winks at him), but he's up against such fearsome enemies that you forgive him.
  • Violent Glaswegian: The Gruffalo comes across like a downplayed version of this: he's voiced by Glaswegian actor Robbie Coltrane but although he's clearly prepared to eat the mouse, he's also ominously quiet.