Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The King and the Mockingbird

Back in post-war France, a crazy Frenchman by the name of Paul Grimault decided to make the first French animated feature, and started work on a wild tale called Le roi et l'oiseau, literally, "The King and the Bird". Then something bad happened. Funding got cut, people fought over the rights, the unfinished film got released, and for the next two decades Grimault and writer Jacques Prévert struggled to get control of it.

Eventually, they won their battle and the film was completed and given a limited release in 1979. And now, finally, it's gotten a home video release, fully restored, and viewable in all its insane glory.

Hayao Miyazaki and Iwao Takahata cite this movie as a primary influence on the creation of Studio Ghibli, and that is so very apparent within a few minutes of this film. Certain techniques used remind me of Ralph Bakshi, and I wouldn't be surprised if he'd seen this at an impressionable age.

Then, in the second act, The Iron Giant shows up. I mean, if you read about this movie, you'll see "influenced" or "prefigured", but it's so recalls the robot in Brad Bird's classic film, that it's almost inconceivable he didn't see this movie.

The story is rather scattered at first: An incompetent but all-powerful king (a mix of Hitler and one or two of the Kings Louis) earns himself an enemy in the form of a big-mouthed bird (I would've guessed cormorant rather than mockingbird), who acts as a foil in his plan to marry a beautiful shepherdess.

Actually, I guess his main foil is the portrait of himself that comes to life and does away with him, but subsequently acts exactly like him. The shepherdess, also a painting, is in love with a chimney sweep—also a painting. None of this matters particularly, as once they come to life, they're just as real as anyone else.

Anyway, the king tries to capture the two lovers, who are kept one step ahead with the help of the bird. At least for a while. 

All the action takes place in the king's palace which is a marvel of insane (and impossible) opulence. The King's tower is on the 299th floor. There's a sub-cellar that's a city unto itself, where the king keeps those who aren't part of his bootlicking coterie for slave labor ("Work makes free!"). This section is very reminiscent of Metropolis and Modern Times.

Also, the product of this underground factory seems to be nothing but images of the king. Which seemed sort of Biblical to me.

You might wonder when this movie takes place. I did and finally came to the conclusion that it was 1948 France. Just a different one from the France portrayed in history books. (That's something I always note in Studio Ghibli films, like Kiki's Delivery Service, which seems to take place ca. 1900 in some unspecified part of Europe with a lot of zeppelins.)

Getting around in this arcology used frequently and hilariously as a gag set-up, as people use stairs and elevators, sure, but also things like paddle-boats and bumper-cars.

The Boy enjoyed it a lot, though he felt the movie's narrative looseness early on robbed it of some of its power. The Flower loved it, as she was spotting all the Ghibli-isms, and she is a big fan of Studio Ghibli. I also loved it for that, while recognizing The Boy's point.

There's just not a lot to dislike here, and if you have any interest in animation, it's a must-see. It's really quite a joy.

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