Friday, November 21, 2014

Old-time animation from France: Paul Grimault's rediscovered THE KING AND THE MOCKINGBIRD

What a history has this movie! According to the informative press release inviting us critics to a screening, THE KING AND THE MOCKINGBIRD is credited as inspiring the creation of the now world-famous Studio Ghibli, as well as clearly impacting on American animation greats like The Iron Giant. Further history, via that press release, goes thusly: Paul Grimault's animated film, written by Grimault and legendary poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert (who wrote Children of Paradise, Port of Shadows and Le Jour se Lève), is based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, and has long been considered to be a masterpiece of traditional, hand-drawn, cell animation.

Grimault (shown at right) and Prévert started work on their Mockingbird in 1947, when it was planned to be France's first animated feature. A dispute stopped production, however (we would love to hear the details of that "dispute"), and it was released unfinished by its producer, without Grimault and Prévert's permission. Grimault spent 10 years getting the rights back and another 20 raising the money to finish the film as he and Prévert had envisaged it. It was finally finished and released in 1979, a few weeks after Prévert's death. Though it has been a favorite of French audiences for 35 years, it has long been unavailable in the U.S. due to rights issues. Now, it will finally be released theatrically by Rialto Pictures in a new restoration from Studiocanal, following its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival this past October.

So. What kind of film is this? The first thing modern-day viewers used to our current, action-filled, mile-a-minute animated films are advised to do is...  relax, and just go with the flow of this movie's very slow pace. It will take awhile to grow on you, but grow it will. Eventually.

The movie begins with the introduction of its sophisticated, funny narrator, the mockingbird of the title, along with animation that looks remarkably simple. Then we meet the titular King, a narcissistic nincompoop with few peers in all of animation. He's a fellow given, when he is displeased with someone, to pressing a button, after which the floor dissolves under said person's feet -- very James Bond villain-style -- and that person simply drops to their... whatever.

The mockingbird and King are arch enemies, and when, in an instance of fantasy inside further fantasy, two figures from the king's art collection -- a chimney sweep and a shepherdess -- try to escape, first from their respective paintings, and then from the King's thrall, the mockingbird comes to their aid.  The King himself, in fact, soon becomes a fantasy figure, after he escapes from his own painting and presses that button to rid himself of the actual King. (Only the French would come up with a situation this philosophically bizarre.) And then the chase is on.

The kingdom we see here will be especially interesting to art lovers, those with an appreciation of the work of de Chirico, I think: It's architectural landscape, mostly empty of people, and there's a kind of existential creepiness about it. Once we do meet some of the citizenry, they prove strange indeed. Yet the old scenario of class warfare soon becomes apparent, and the use of both wild animals and birds to serve the royalty and the general populace is oddball and appealing.

All of this leads up to what looks like a new kind of French Revolution, building to one of the most resounding final images in the history of animation. Running just 83 minutes, The King and the Mockingbird's U.S. theatrical release begins today, Friday, November 21, as it opens at Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City, followed by a Los Angeles run at Laemmle' Royal, Playhouse 7 and Noho 7 on December 19, to be followed by a national rollout.

No comments: