If the comparatively gaudy packaging of Kirikou and the Sorceress' DVD release can be seen as lacking the BFI's usual visual restraint then this is almost entirely indicative of the film itself. From their videos onwards the company has always paid special attention to animation, allowing the British public access to works by filmmakers as diverse as David Anderson, the Brothers Quay and Lotte Reiniger. Yet whilst these and other releases may not be intended for a specifically `adult' audience, they do tend to err on the specialist side of the spectrum. Kirikou and the Sorceress on the other hand is a film primarily aimed at children and as such the attention seeking nature of the sleeve is forgivable, even understandable. Moreover, the disc offers another rarity from the BFI - an English dub track (as used for the small scale UK cinema release) alongside the original French - in a further attempt to capture a larger audience.
The target demographic is apparent within the opening minutes. Not so much from the plot itself (loosely adapted from a tradition African folk tale), but rather the manner in which writer/director Michel Ocelot has gone about structuring it. The set up is simple: a village lives in fear of the local sorceress, something which excites the curiosity of newborn Kirikou, a child gifted with wisdom beyond his years (or rather days) and the ability to speak. His continual questioning of the situation - and the many unfulfilling answers he receives - fuel the narrative in a manner not unlike that a child's picture book. Indeed, Kirikou's process of discovery prompts him to learn various lessons as well as gradually break down the myth that has surrounded his village's nemesis.
The reason why Kirikou and the Sorceress deserves to be a film and not a picture book, however, is similarly apparent from the offset (though, since the film's release, a picture book has become available). Ocelot may have altered aspects of his original source, but has opted to maintain the African setting. The result is a style and authenticity rarely seen in feature length animation, especially one aimed so specifically at children. Interestingly, it is this very element which allows the film to crossover into more adult territory and not simply because world music fave Youssou N'Dour has provided the simple but attractive soundtrack. Rather it is the rich colour palette - ranging from the dark ethnic skin tones (as opposed to lighter Disney-favoured ones) to the bright opulence of the village's jungle surroundings - that the setting provides which makes the traditional 2D cel animation (with the expected degree of computer assistance) seem altogether more unique. Indeed, so rare is the range of colours used that Ocelot's Africa, cinematically at least, appears at times to be a very alien place. (Though note that the director has refrained from creating a country-specific location, rather he has opted to take elements from various individual cultures and combined them for his own purposes.) Perhaps inadvertently, this also proves favourable by allowing the more fantastical elements occupying the film's edges - a Miyazaki-like monster that lives in the villagers' spring, the robot-like creatures that serve as the sorceress' minions - to fit in alongside those which are more familiar. And once again it is these quirkier asides which, without ever distracting from the main focus, prove a welcome diversion for an adult audience.
To return to the picture book structure, it should also be noted, however, that this approach is not without its difficulties. Certainly, the sheer simplicity allows Kirikou and the orceress to be refreshingly free of contrivance whilst the looseness provides enough to make room for a number of genuine surprises to develop throughout. Yet this also creates an unavoidable situation whereby the film is constructed of episodes; each question that Kirikou asks is never met with a succinct, wholly satisfying answer and so leads to yet another question. Of course, from a child's point of view this will make the fable-like qualities all the more apparent and no doubt find a mirror in their own methods of discovery, yet from an adult perspective it can prove momentarily wearying. That said, as with all good picture books, Kirikou and the Sorceress recognises its own limitations and as such keeps its narrative short but effective; the film's duration is a brisk 70 minute running time, keeping such longeurs to a minimum.
If there is a genuine problem with the film then it lies with the character of Kirikou himself. Again there is a clash between what a child and what an adult will expect. For a younger audience he can be seen as a figure of identification - he has an immediate outsider status amongst both the village's adults and children because of his age and despite his obvious gifts - whilst his habit of narrating his own actions allows them to ascertain his motives. For the older viewer it is hard not to identify with those who find him a figure of annoyance as his wisdom brings with it a certain cockiness, and at times he can resemble none other than the archetypal Hollywood moppet (one of whom would no doubt be picked if the film were to receive a US makeover) only without the sickening cuteness. It's a slightly jarring element, especially as Kirikou and the Sorceress offer such a distinctly alternative option from the mainstream. Indeed, for a film that rarely imposes itself upon its audience, instead preferring them to discover their own pleasures, it may appear somewhat strange to discover such an overbearing character at its centre. And it is with the audience's reaction to such a character that the film's success may depend.
Released onto DVD so soon after its big screen outing it is hardly surprising that Kirikou and the Sorceress looks extremely good. The sheer range of colours, from the extremely dark to the dazzlingly bright, make this a real test of presentation, yet few problems prevail. Indeed, that some of the images may be at times difficult to discern is solely the result of the filmmaker's choices and not the actions of the disc's producers. Moreover, the film has been presented in the correct 1.55:1 ratio (despite the packaging claiming 4:3) and as such has understandably been transferred non-anamorphically.
As for the soundtrack, both the original French (with optional English subtitles) and an English dub track are available in Dolby Stereo. Whilst the choice of which to use is likely to be down to the preferences of the viewer (as well as their age), please note that the French option is the crisper of the two and finds a better balance between the dialogue and the ambient noises. Fans of Youssou N'Dour's score may be interested to know that his songs have also been translated into English for the alternative dub, though without any dramatic shift in quality.
Sadly, the disc's extras are minimal in the extreme. Fiona Marrow has provided some brief sleeve notes that shine some light on Ocelot's intentions, whilst the director also has a brief biography contained on the disc. Given the unique nature of Kirikou and the Sorceress, it is disappointing that no "making of" featurette or commentary is present, whilst I'm sure that fans of the picture would have welcomed a short film of Ocelot's or two.
Somewhat lost amongst the likes of Belleville Rendezvous and Spirited Away, Kirikou and the Sorceress may be aimed more specifically at a younger audience, but is equally worthy of their crossover successes. Anthony Nield has reviewed the Region 2 release.