As I noted in my previous post, I had the chance to see Michel Ocelot’s latest film, Azur et Asmar (France, 2006), in the British release version, Azur & Asmar: The Princes’ Quest, at the Society for Animation Studies conference in England, with the director present. Unfortunately, a lack of 35mm facilities meant a DVD copy was shown, which did not really do justice to the film’s rich imagery. As the film’s American distributor (the Weinstein Company) has bowed out, those in the United States and Canada will have to bide their time. (Those who have region-free DVD players can get copies from Amazon UK and elsewhere. Hopefully, Korean NTSC DVDs, with English subtitles, may find their way here as well.)
Ocelot, whose short films were a fixture on the international festival circuit, had considerable success with Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998), which has also has been made into a successful stage musical in France. It was this success which enabled him to have a bigger budget and more freedom in making Azur et Asmar; thus, instead of having the film outsourced to five different countries, production could all be done in Paris.
There is a lot to like in Kirikou, but I felt that it did not sustain the charm and decorative beauty of its early scenes; nevertheless, I enjoy showing a clip from it in my Survey of Animation class, and students inevitably want to see more. (Several always happily buy it on DVD.)
With Kirikou, Ocelot was telling a tale based on West African folklore, something he was familiar with, since he spent much of his childhood in Guinea, the former French colony. This time, reflecting his concern about the problems of North African immigrants in France, he tells a tale of two boys set in the Middle Ages — the fair haired Azur, the son of European nobility, and Asmar, the dark skinned son of Azur’s Muslim nurse; though the nurse raises them as brothers, Azur’s father banishes the nurse and her son; years later, the two are reunited when Azur journeys to Asmar’s homeland, where they both undertake a quest for a Djinn fairy.
The story is really rather thin and the early part of the film seems rather weak. Ocelot, whose silhouette-style favors flat imagery, opted to render his characters with computers, who play out against often lavish hand drawn backgrounds. However, the early scenes in Europe lack the visual interest of the rest of the film, and the early going is somewhat tedious. However, once Azur sets out on his quest, Ocelot’s lavish pictorialism kicks in and it becomes considerably more appealing; and it is this pictorialism, which is something like a series of Persian miniatures come to life, that carries the film.
(Interestingly, pictorialism of a different sort is also a feature of Kung Fu Panda and WALL-E. In Kung Fu, it certainly enriched a well-executed story, and in WALL-E, it was one of the film’s few saving graces. )
Kirikou‘s international success was not duplicated in the US, probably due to its rather matter-of-fact nudity. This is not a problem with Azur, but according to Ocelot, the Weinstein Company felt no one in America wanted to see the film. Perhaps this was due to its subject matter and the fact that much of the dialog is in Arabic, with no subtitles. Ocelot was visibly upset about the Weinstein Company’s actions and hoped someone else would pick it up for US distribution. Let’s hope so, but given the large number of European animated movies which fail to get a theatrical airing here, I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, here’s the British trailer for the film.