Sunday 5 May 2013

French Animation, Chapitre 2 - Le Roi et l'Oiseau

Previously: The Triplets of Belleville

Also known as The King and the Bird and all sorts of variations around that (The King and Mister Bird, The King and the Mocking Bird...), Le Roi et L'Oiseau is considered by many the greatest French animated film ever made (although I think The Triplets of Belleville deserves that title) and I can see why a large number of people would think that. Le Roi et L'Oiseau is indeed a near perfect film, a one of a kind masterpiece, and it ranks just behind the Sylvain Chomet-tale in my hierarchy of French animation.

What is it?
Sadly this fine film is not as popular as it should be. Mainly because it was never widely released in the United States, and opened in very few territories (mostly European). It was shown to Japanese audiences only seven years ago.
Written by director Paul Grimault and poet Jacques Prévert, Le Roi et l'Oiseau opened first in 1952, in a shorter form called La Bergère et le Ramoneur (The Sheperdess and the Chimneysweep, loosely based on the Andersen fairy tale of the same name) - yet another title - against the filmmakers' wishes.
Ultimately Paul Grimault got the rights to his film back, added some new scenes, took out some old ones, and released what is now known as Le Roi et l'Oiseau in 1980.

Paul Grimault and Jacques Prévert

What is it about?
Le Roi et l'Oiseau is basically a story that deals with totalitarianism. Not a shock, considering Grimault and Prévert started to work on it just after the end of World War II. It does so in a poetic manner, and using metaphors; for instance the events of the movie take place in a fictional kingdom, Takicardia. But despite this, the King character is still a very scary villain. Yes, King Charles V + III = VIII + VIII = XVI can be quite ridiculous at times, but he's also pitiless and all powerful.
The title refers to him and to a bird, but the bird really serves as a narrator. The real leads here are the Sheperdness and the Chimneysweep. They're in love with each other, but trapped in the King's palace. Can they escape the tyrant and his giant automaton? Will there be hope for them, and for others, in the end?

How is it?
The general character design is astounding. Some minor characters feel a little out of place and outdated, but the main ones are beautiful creations, and finely animated. The set design equally stands out as a wonderful work of art. Takicardia is a strange, yet captivating combination of Venice, a fairy tale castle and Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The look of the film was an inspiration for numerous Hayao Miyazaki films, and it's no surprise that it was Ghibli who distributed it in Japan.
There is very little dialogue in this film, but Jacques Prévert is a master at choosing words, and it shows here. What I can say about the story, without revealing too much, is that it finds the right balance between poetry and a strong message. It can be funny, but it's generally quite subtle and dark humoured.

Final words
Le Roi et l'Oiseau is a film that should be seen by all animation lovers. Unfortunately, that will never be the case, as the film was released in a very chaotic fashion across the globe. And I believe it wasn't dubbed in any other language. But if you ever do get the chance to see it, I strongly encourage you to do so.

Next: Persepolis

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