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Movie review: To charm or not to charm in Michel Ocelot’s animated tales

My first encounter with Michel Ocelot’s work was in the form of “Princes et Princesses” (Princes and Princesses). I was a high school senior and it was homeroom period and I had not been expecting to be enchanted so early in the morning.

But enchanted I was—with the concept of vivid colors juxtaposed by shadow puppet-style animation, so brilliant in its simplicity at the time. The backgrounds have a charming, flat silhouette quality to them and the characters are mostly seen interacting at profile view—think of black cartolina cutouts with colored cellophane filling in the spaces. I was also quite taken in by the fairy tale-esque narrative of “La Sorciere” (The Sorceress). Halfway through the short, I realized that this fairy tale was not going to end in the peasant boy marrying the princess—and that was all right. I asked to borrow the DVD in order to watch the five other shorts.

“La Princess des diamants” (The Princess of Diamonds), the Egyptian tale “Le Garcon des figues” (The Fig Boy), Japan-set “Le Manteau de la vieille dame” (The Old Woman’s Mantle), the far-flung future of “La Reine cruelle et le montreur de fabulo” (The Cruel Queen and the Fabulo), and “Prince et princesse” (Prince and Princesse) are all either based on the fables of different cultures or are the products of Ocelot’s imagination. Each one—with the exception of “The Old Woman’s Mantle”—has royalty figuring in it in some way: getting into magical scrapes, passing judgment on the peasants or presenting rewards to them. While most shorts are morality tales, there are a few that deal with moral gray areas. All are tied together by a boy and a girl who come to an old cinema and its technician at night and draw up costumes and re-enact their fancies on a stage.

That Ocelot was meticulous about getting the tones and subtle artistic nuances of each culture just right makes the utterly charming “Princes et Princesses” that much more endearing and left me wanting more, especially when I heard that it was a compilation movie of six of the original eight episodes of the 1989 series “Cine si” (the other two are lost). I was all the more intrigued when I heard there was a sequel in “Les contes de la nuit” (Tales of the Night).

‘Les contes de la nuit’

Five years passed between my viewing of “Princes et Princesses” and “Les contes de la nuit,” which is also a compilation movie of five out of ten episodes of 2010’s “Dragons et Princesses” (Dragons and Princesses), with one new short thrown in.

Within that time, my anticipation built up to fever-pitch, especially when a friend of mine who was traveling in France offered to buy me the DVD. She watched it first and told me that she was disappointed. Frankly, I was disappointed, too.

Again, royalty figures in every story except for the medieval European “The Doe-Girl and the Architect’s Son,” which happens to be the new short. This time, it seems that most of the royalty are cruel tricksters and zealots, like the eldest princess in “The Werewolf,” the Aztec king in “The Chosen One and the City of Gold,” the king in the Caribbean-inspired “Tijean and Belle-Sans-Connaitre,” and the rival king and his daughter in “The Boy Who Never Lied,” which was set in Tibet. The only benevolent royal in this film is the African princess who encourages the protagonist to hone his talent in “The Boy Tam-Tam.” Again, the shorts are bound together by the boy, the girl, and the cinema technician who are play-acting in the cinema.

I felt as if each short had a longer running time than their predecessors, which was a good thing as this allowed for elaborate. The colors, if anything, are even bolder, the patterns more sumptuous—I was especially taken with the labyrinthine cathedral in “The Doe-Girl and the Architect’s Son” and the stunning Caribbean hues of “Tijean and Belle-Sans-Connaitre.” I don’t really like how the characters spend a lot of time facing the camera now and how their eyes are a little more expressive, but I guess that’s just a matter of taste. They have better animation this time around, but I feel as if the strict shadow puppet aesthetic was violated in some cases.

But the real issue lies within the narratives themselves. I appreciate the effort to be more inclusive with regard to the fables and cultures of the world, but the plots were long-drawn out, and I could not find anyone to sympathize with in the first three tales (“The Werewolf,” “Tijean and Belle-Sans-Connaitre,” and “The Chosen One and the City of Gold”). The emotional resonance only began to pick up with the next three shorts—it makes me wonder if the five episodes not included in this compilation movie were any better.

I don’t need my fairy tales to be flat morality stories—and thankfully, none of the shorts of “Les contes de la nuit” are. I just don’t know if my expectations were set too high by “Princes et Princesses” or there really was some charm lost. — BM, GMA News

“Princes et Princesses” and “Les contes de la nuit” are two of ten animated films currently being screened at the Cinema in the Open-Air Film Cycle at Rizal Park, courtesy of Ambafrance Manille, for the entire month of March.