Le Roi et L’Oiseau (The King and the Mockingbird) is one of the true classics of animation in France, and although its renown and popularity haven’t made it across to this side of the channel, it has been a source of inspiration to many of the current generation of Japanese animators. Scripted by the celebrated poet, Jacques Prévert (who also scripted Quai de Brumes and Les Enfants du Paradis), designed by the master of French animation, Paul Grimault, based on a story by Hans Christian Anderson, Le Roi et L’Oiseau's credentials are impeccable and its reputation unassailable.
Originally conceived and created as a short animated adaptation of Anderson’s ‘The Shepherdess and The Chimney Sweep’ in 1952, the film was never finished by Grimault. He bought back the rights to the original print of his work twenty years later and collaborated again with Prévert interweaving Anderson’s story into a new creation, Le Roi et L’Oiseau. Working again with his old team of animators and a group of brilliant young animators, new sequences were added, each of the animators feeding of the others’ experience and freshness, contributing to create a classic of modern animation.
The immense kingdom of Takicardia is ruled by a king under the unwieldy title of Charles V + III = VIII + VIII = XVI. He’s a heartless ruler, hated by his people as much as he hates them. The king has a fondness for hunting, but is unfortunately cross-eyed – not that anyone would dare acknowledge this in front of him, as the numerous statues and paintings that adorn the palace and the land show. Occasionally the king does hit his target though, notably the wife of the bird, known only as L’Oiseau, the narrator of the story who takes pleasure in taunting the terrible king at every opportunity.
In his secret apartment, the king dreams of the beautiful Shepherdess whose painting he keeps on his wall, but the Shepherdess is in love with the Sweep whose hated portrait is on the opposite wall. At night the paintings come to life and attempt to escape from the palace, but are pursued by a non-cross-eyed painting of the king that also has come to life, deposed the real king and has taken his place. He orders the capture of the Shepherdess and the Sweep, but L’Oiseau is there to help when called upon. They are pursued to the depths of the Lower City where the inhabitants have never seen the light of the sun and strange creatures and bat-police take up their chase.
The animation is superb – beautifully designed sets and backgrounds full of technical marvels, wondrous caverns, towers, arches, Venetian canals and squares and vast palaces with Escher-like staircases. Each of the animators worked on their own characters, imbuing them with their own personality and characteristics – the king for example moves with the graceful fluidity of his creator, the chief animator Henri Lacam. Considering the amount of effort that went into acquiring a twenty year old film and the personal involvement that each of the creators put into the film, Le Roi et L’Oiseau is clearly a labour of love – and it shows. Rarely is animation so vital, so alive and so life-affirming – full of magic, wit, personality and imagination. It’s a style and philosophy that will be familiar to anyone who has seen the works of Hayao Miyazaki (Castle In The Sky, Castle of Cagliostro, My Neighbour Totoro) and the influence of Grimault’s masterpiece on the master of Japanese animation can be clearly seen throughout this film.
The film has been carefully restored, receiving much acclaim when it was released in French theatres earlier this year. The French release of the DVD also shows great consideration for the film, presenting it well in a 2-disc Collector’s Edition and a Numbered Limited Edition Prestige box-set. Each has a similar selection of extra features, but the Prestige Edition also contains a CD of the brilliant soundtrack, a booklet and 5 lithographs. Unfortunately, there are no English subtitles on either release, which is a great pity, but there is not a great deal of French dialogue in the film.
The film has been magnificently restored. There is some slight variation between the original negative and the new and remade sections of the film - some grain is still visible in older parts of the material and there is some minor colour fluctuation, but otherwise and elsewhere, the film looks superb.
The soundtrack has also been restored, Wojciech Kilar’s melodic, enchanting and captivating score being mixed into stereo for this release. The sound performs very well.
There are no English subtitles on the French DVD - in fact, there are no subtitles of any kind on either the film or the extra features. While not wanting to be dismissive of Prévert’s witty and at times brilliant dialogue, the film is primarily a visual storytelling experience. Dialogue is minimal and any exchanges can be easily understood if you have any knowledge of French at all, but could be easily guessed even if you don’t.
The trailer is presented in 1.85:1 letterbox.
Paul Grimault: Image par Image (56:01)
This documentary, as the title suggests, goes through the creation of the film step by step, interviewing many of the principal animators and the composer, Wojciech Kilar (The Pianist). It’s a fine and detailed documentary which shows clearly why the film is an exceptional piece of work.
Le Table Tournante (1:14:53)
Disc 2 contains a compilation film of Grimault’s best work chronologically through his career, some of it slightly edited down for the film. The film was made with Grimault’s participation, introducing each of the films to the accordian clown from Le Roi et L’Oiseau (in live sequences filmed by Jacques Demy). Some of the early films are a bit rough, but the sixties and seventies work with Jacques Prévert are original and brilliant. The film is in French with no subtitles, but no knowledge of French is required as most of the cartoons are without dialogue. A trailer for the film is also included.
Drôle d’Oiseau (21:21)
Paul Grimault is interviewed and talks about the foundation of Les Gemeaux Studios, working in German-occupied France, taking us through his career up to the enormity of making a full length feature with only a small team of animators. In French, no subtitles.
Les Passagers de La Grande Ourse (09:00)
One of Grimault’s early short films is shown in its entirety. A boy and his dog stowaway on a newly launched airship and have to avoid the attentions of the robot housekeeper. No dialogue, the short contains a music score only.
Jean Aurenche, Publicity films (7:22)
Jean Aurenche (the same Aurenche who was the subject of Bertrand Tavernier’s Laissez-Passer) and Grimault talk about the advertising films they made together in the 1930s. The films are totally bizarre, original and surreal short live-action films made to advertise products. The quality is good and as well as being included for completeness, these are fun to see. The films contain no French dialogue.
Paul Grimault, Publicity films (5:38)
Four short animated advertisements made by Grimault.
Le Roi et L’Oiseau is one of the greatest works of animation anywhere in the world – a timeless blend of fantasy, fable and imagination created and realised by true masters of the artform. The release of the restored edition of the film on DVD with superb extra features is a major event. It’s only a pity that there are no English subtitles included to give this film a wider audience, but I don’t think the lack of subtitles would prevent anyone, adult or child, from fully enjoying the film. The likelihood of Le Roi et L’Oiseau receiving a full UK or US release is slim, so I would still highly recommend this French edition.