Kirikou and the Sorceress, the debut feature of French animator Michel Ocelot, was one of the more distinctive animations of recent years to have been released outside of the Pixar and Studio Ghibli megaliths. Overshadowed by Belleville Rendez-vous in terms of critical plaudits and perhaps hampered by its UK distribution (both theatrically and on disc) having been handled by the BFI as opposed to a major studio, and therefore the marketing clout that comes with it, Kirikou nonetheless deserved to rub shoulders with these more commercially successful works. Drawing on African folk tales, and inspiring a children’s picture book of the same name, it was very much a kids’ film at base level, yet it came with a very strong visual style and a rich soundtrack by Youssou N’Dour. The frank ethnographic nudity attracted attention from some circles, but then so did its lack of sentimentality, refusal to anthropomorphise and avoidance of those cloying songs so prevalent in contemporary mainstream animation. (Although this last note shouldn’t be read as a dig aimed at Disney – the decade between Kirikou and Azur & Asmar, after all, having seen a willingness to diversify its 2D output, from The Emperor’s New Groove to the Fantasia revamp, from Atlantis: The Lost Empire to Lilo & Stitch.)
Azur & Asmar continues many of the themes and ideas from Kirikou though it is arguably the more accomplished work. Once again the storytelling has a folk tale familiarity to it. Two children, of different class and racial backgrounds, are brought up by the same woman (nanny to one, mother to the other) only to be separated as they enter adolescence. Inspired by the bedtime stories of their youth regarding the Djinn Fairy, both set out in young adulthood to track her down, free her from captivity and thus win her hand in marriage. Inevitably, the two childhood friends meet up once more before embarking upon their quest and in doing so reignite their brotherly rivalry.
It is the class and racial dimensions which prevent Azur & Asmar from resembling an animated equivalent of those seventies’ ‘Arabian Adventure’ swashbucklers concerned with little else besides special effects and guest star appearances. By making one of the boys the son of a white nobleman (Azur) and the other a seemingly poor Arab (Asmar), Ocelot’s drama is more about racial harmony than it is fantastical creatures. A tad simplistic perhaps, but then this is predominantly a film for children. Moreover, Ocelot is fully aware of this and so enables their understanding by placing the point of view with Azur, thus allowing for an outsider’s perspective as he adjusts to life in a foreign land. Only the French dialogue is subtitled (or dubbed into English depending on your choice of soundtrack) and there’s a continual wonder at new sights, sounds and smells. His feigned blindness – a ruse to disguise his distinctive blue eyes – also serves as an adept and underplayed metaphor for both his own prejudices and those of the people who surround him.
Narrative concerns and subtext do tend to slip away on an initial viewing, however, owing to dazzling animation on display. Azur & Asmar marks Ocelot’s first move into CG and it’s a highly successful venture. At first glance the end result appears quite bland: the central figures and early backgrounds are rendered as blocks of colour with little room for tone or shade. But then the details become apparent – intricately designed earrings and the like – whilst the settings grow ever more impressive as the tale takes on its more fantastical elements. Indeed, the simplicity of the central figures is no doubt intended as a reflection of their own broadly sketched characterisations, although this could also be seen as a sign of Lotte Reiniger’s professed influence. Best known for The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), Reiniger pioneered the silhouette film, her lovingly designed cut-outs set adrift amongst fairy tales and, in the case of Prince Achmed, ‘Arabian Nights’-style fantasies. It may seem a perverse pairing – early pioneering animation meets state-of-the-art computer imagery – but it nevertheless pays off. From explicit referencing (night time scenes enabling nothing more than silhouettes) to the general method of character presentation (side-on and always expressive), the spirit of Reiniger undoubtedly lives on, although Ocelot is also able to treat us to the stunning colours she never had access to and some quite remarkable creations – a dazzling red lion, in particular, being a sight to behold.
More importantly, Reiniger’s presence can be felt in the sheer faith which Ocelot has in both the simplicity of the material and the art of storytelling. The outcome may not come as a surprise, and the quest itself is perhaps too easily achieved, yet Azur & Asmar never doubts itself and as such neither do we. As entertainment, plain and simple, recent cinema has produced little that can top it, and as animation it marks Ocelot as a genuine key player. Alongside Pixar, Ghibli, such one-offs as A Scanner Darkly and Belleville Rendez-vous, plus lesser heralded anime and, indeed, American works, we may currently be spoilt for choice. But how could that ever be considered a problem?
[A quick note with regards to the film’s UK title: The Princes’ Quest subtitle has been added by Soda for UK publicity purposes. It featured prominently on the cinema advertising and indeed the disc’s sleeve where it positively overshadows the Azur & Asmar part. However, on the credits and for its native French release the film was simply known by the names of its principle characters.]
In retrospect the BFI’s Region 2 disc of Kirikou and the Sorceress was something of a disappointment. Though undoubtedly welcome – otherwise the film may have gone unreleased in the UK – and blessed with a fine print and original French soundtrack, it was sorely lacking in extras. Thankfully, and despite being released by another independent, Azur & Asmar gets an excellent DVD handling here. The presentation itself is superb, no doubt aided by the digital source. The colours are as forceful as intended (unfortunately I’m currently unable to supply screen grabs), there are no technical deficiencies to speak of and such concerns as original aspect ratio and anamorphic enhancement are all present and correct. As with the earlier Kirikou disc we also get both the original French dialogue and the choice of an English dub, with subtitles optional. Note, however, that these are of the ‘hard of hearing’ variety, although only one scene is affected, and thankfully it’s a brief one. As for the differences between the French and English versions, both come in DD5.1 format and problems aren’t apparent in either – it’s simply a case of personal discretion as to which you go for.
Extras are pleasingly wide-ranging, from the expected assemblage of trailers to a gallery of Ocelot’s sketches, storyboards and (if this is the correct term for a CG feature) production stills. The two main extras are a featurette containing interview material with Ocelot and an accompanying short. The former, entitled The Fabulous Picture Show, was produced by Al-Jazeera and contains clips alongside Ocelot’s thoughts and, quite pleasingly, a Q&A session with a children’s audience. Equally appealing is The Princess and the Pendant, a Lotte Reiniger-inspired short made by a group of Coventry schoolchildren. Produced with the assistance of the Lottery-funded First Light Movies (www.firstlightmovies.com) this is seven minutes of pure charm. Voiced by the children themselves (a bunch of 21 five-year olds), it tells the tale of Butterflyland and Horridland, an innocent princess and a chief villain dubbed Cranky Sarah. Quality isn’t really an issue here, understandably, but it is really quite lovely, never more so than when its makers, in various states of self-consciousness, introduce themselves one-by-one at the very end. Rounding off the package we also have the original French opening and closing credits, though given that these are simply white text on a black background, there really is scant reason for their inclusion.
One of the animated highlights of recent years, Anthony Nield reviews Soda's excellent Region 2 handling of Azur & Asmar.