This is the 14th installment of my survey of French animated features – this week a look at the features released in 2012 and films by such diverse artists as Benjamin Renner and – yes again – Michel Ocelot.
Zarafa, directed by Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christophe Lie. 78 minutes. February 8, 2012.
A 19th-century West African village elder tells the story of Maki, a 10-year-old Sudanese boy who has been enslaved by Moreno, a cruel Muslim slave trader. Maki escapes with the girl Soula, but is recaptured just as they meet a mother giraffe and her calf. Moreno kills the mother, but Maki escapes again with the giraffe calf. They are rescued by Hassan, a Bedouin nomad, who calls the female calf Zarafa (Arabic for giraffe). They re-meet Moreno and save Soula from him. Hassan has been assigned by Mehmet Ali, the pasha of Egypt, to capture a giraffe as a present for King Charles X of France, to win France’s help against the Ottoman Empire’s attempt to annex Alexandria. The plot grows complex, with Moreno recapturing Soula; Malaterre, an ascension balloonist taking Hassan, Maki, Zarafa, and two Tibetan cows to Paris but throwing Maki and the cows overboard; and Bouboulina, a pirate queen rescuing and making Maki a crewman. The group finally reach Paris, where King Charles gives Zarafa to the city zoo but refuses to help Egypt. Moreno recaptures Maki, and makes him a servant in his Parisian home (with Soula), which Maki accepts to stay near Zarafa. Years pass and Maki and Soula grow up to become young lovers. Paris goes “giraffe crazy” over Zarafa. Maki and Soula escape, find Hassan and Malaterre, and try to rescue Zarafa in Malaterre’s balloon. During the ensuing confusion, King Charles is covered in hippopotamus poop; Hassan is shot; Moreno is eaten by the zoo’s polar bear; and Maki & Soula realize that Zarafa is now too large for the ascension balloon. They give her up, since she is being well-treated in the zoo. They fly back to Africa, where Hassan is nursed back to health and falls in love with Bouboulina. Maki and Soula are married and start a new Sudanese village. The old storyteller turns out to be Maki.
Zarafa was advertised heavily in France as “based on the true story” about the pasha of Egypt sending a giraffe to Charles X of France, and his giving it to the Parisian zoo. This resulted in equally well-publicized complaints from historians about the liberties taken with the real story. But the feature was received positively as a good story and skillful animation. (Co-director Lie was one of the main animators on The Triplets of Belleville.) Nominated for the César Award for Best Animated Film, and the American GKIDS release was nominated for a 2012 Annie Award for “Directing in an Animated Feature Production”.
Sur la Piste du Marsupilami (On the Trail of the Marsupilami), directed by Alain Chabat. 105 minutes. April 4, 2012.
A new story with the long-tailed marsupilami from André Franquin’s bandes dessinées. A live-action comedy except for the frequently-seen CGI marsupilami. Dan Geraldo (Alain Chabat), a reporter, goes to Chiquito, Palombia looking for a scoop. Pablito (Jamel Debbouze), an eccentric guide considered a liar by his family, tells him of the legendary marsupilami. Dr. Hermoso, an 80-year-old botanist, brews an elixir of youth from rare orchids in the Palombian rainforest, makes himself young again, and with Army officer Caporal, he imprisons dictator General Pochero and makes himself the new president of Palombia. He plans to capture the marsupilami and train it to find the rare orchids needed to make the elixir. Dan and Pablito are captured by the Paya natives, but are released by Queen Paya after she tells them of a prophecy about the Guardian of the Jungle (the marsupilami) being endangered by “the man with two faces”. Dan and Pablito quarrel and separate. Pablito discovers the marsupilami with his mate and nest of eggs, but Hermoso (now General Hermoso) and the Palombian army arrive, capture the marsupilami, and seize the eggs. Pablito tries to stop them, but he and Dan are captured. Hermoso decides that it will be easier to hatch the eggs and train the newborn marsupilamis to fetch the orchids, and he gives the marsupilami to Caporal. Dan and Pablito, in prison, meet General Pochero, and the three escape together. Pochero disguises himself as a woman and distracts the guards, allowing Dan and Pablito to sneak into the Presidential Palace and steal the eggs and orchids. Meanwhile, the sadistic Caporal tries to kill the marsupilami, who knocks him out and escapes after the eggs. Simultaneously, Hermoso discovers the eggs and orchids missing and he pursues Dan & Pablito. The latter two lead everyone to Chiquito’s TV Palombia station, where Hermoso electrocutes the marsupilami. Pablito performs artificial respiration and saves him. Hermoso is about to escape with the eggs when the elixir wears off and he becomes an old man again; then, trying to restore his youth, he overdoses on elixir and becomes a baby. Pablito becomes a hero to his family, and the marsupilami returns to the jungle with his now-hatched baby marsupilamis.
The movie was a box-office hit, with over 5,300,000 tickets sold in France, 248,000 in Belgium, and 115,000 in Switzerland.
Cendrillon au Far West (Cinderella: Once Upon a Time in the West), directed by Pascal Hérold. 81 minutes. July 25, 2012.
A funny-animal CGI Western. Cinderella is a spunky pigtailed deer cowgirl in a Wild West town besieged by Barbazul the gorilla pirate captain, and his men on giant vultures, from their galleon stranded in the desert. She is made to scrub floors by Felicity (fat dog), her wicked stepmother and the town boss, and Harmony and Melody, her two ugly daughters. One day the town is visited by Russian Prince Vladimir (spaniel) and his mother, the Grand Dutchess (turkey). Felicity throws a big dance for the Prince in the saloon, hoping that he’ll marry one of her daughters, while Barbazul plans to kidnap the Grand Dutchess for her jewels. Cinderella is naturally not invited, but with the magic help of Little Cloud, the prairie dog medicine man, she attends as a masked beauty until the desert coyotes howl twelve times. But when Barbazul succeeds in kidnapping the Grand Dutchess, Prince Vladimir and Cinderella ride to the rescue. All the critics compared it to the American Rango, of course.
Sammy 2 (A Turtle’s Tale 2: Sammy’s Escape from Paradise), directed by Ben Stasson. 93 minutes. August 15, 2012.
Sammy (green turtle) and Ray (leatherback turtle), now grandparents, are helping the newly-hatched sea turtles on a Pacific atoll escape to the sea without being eaten by seagulls, when they are caught by human poachers and sold to The Tank, a huge palatial aquarium in Dubai with its obsequious Arab manager. It’s easy living, except that the Arab princes and super-rich American and European tourists can choose the sea life in the aquarium to be cooked for their dinner. Sammy and Ray try to escape with the help of Jimbo the blob fish, Manuel and Consuelo the hogfish, Lulu the lobster, Ciulia the snowcrab, a family of penguins, and others; but they are co-opted by Big D the tiny seahorse (with Marco and Philippe, his two huge moray eel goons), who is determined that HIS escape plan will be the ONLY escape plan. When Sammy and Ray realize that Big D’s plan is a fake, and that he is really only interested in keeping himself the leader of the aquarium’s sealife (the tiny seahorse doesn’t have to worry about being chosen for dinner), they resolve to escape despite him. Meanwhile Ella and Ricky, the baby turtles from the atoll, try to rescue their grandparents with the help of Annabel the pink octopus and her daughter Margaret.
Sammy 2 was also shown as Sammy’s Escape. There are many musical numbers, some sung by the characters and some as entertainment in the ritzy aquarium.
Le Magasin des Suicides (The Suicide Shop), directed by Patrice Leconte. 79 minutes. September 26, 2012.
In a near-future city, The Suicide Shop (founded: 1854) has finally come into its own. The ravages of Climate Change are depressing everyone until the shop has almost more business than it can handle. The shop has been in the gloomy Tuvache family from its start, giving suicide advice and selling suicide aids. The current generation is led by 45-year-old Mishima Tuvache (named for the Japanese author Yukio Mishima, who committed hara-kiri) and 40-year-old Lucrèce Tuvache (she married into the family). Their children are 17-year-old ugly, fat Marilyn (named for movie star Marilyn Monroe, who overdosed on sleeping pills), 15-year-old anorexic Vincent (named for painter Vincent Van Gogh, who cut off his ear and later committed suicide), and 7-year-old Alain (named for Alan Turing, the British computer developer, mathematician, and homosexual who committed suicide). But Alan is the white sheep of the family; constantly cheerful, exuberant, and making their clientele not feel like suicide. The bleak, macabre Tuvaches each try to subvert Alain’s optimism, but it is he who converts them to a joie de vivre, eventually turning the Suicide Shop into a happy novelty store.
A musical adaptation of the 2006 black-comedy novel by Jean Taulé. In the novel’s ironic ending, Alain is the only one who finally commits suicide. In the movie, everyone lives happily ever after.
Kirikou et les Hommes et les Femmes (Kirikou and the Men and Women), directed by Michel Ocelot. 88 minutes. October 3, 2012.
Kirikou’s grandfather tells five more stories of young Kirikou’s battles with the sorceress Karaba. Unlike Kirikou et les Bêtes Sauvages, these concentrate on the people of Kirikou’s village. In the first, Kirikou helps his villagers repair their roofs, damaged in a windstorm, despite Karaba’s interfering fetishes. In the second, Kirikou’s old uncle disappears. Kirikou finds that he had momentarily left the village, and Karaba’s control over the fetishes and wild animals is preventing his return. Kirikou helps his uncle to trick them. In #3, Kirikou and the village children meet a strange boy with white skin and clothes. The boy is Anigouran, a Tuareg who got separated from his people’s camel caravan in a sandstorm. Kirikou and his mother help Anigouran return home despite the villagers’ fear that he is an evil spirit. In #4, the wandering storyteller Morello comes to the village. The villagers suspect that she will be a useless mouth to feed, but her stories are so wonderful that Karaba learns of them, and kidnaps Morello so that only she can hear them. Kirikou follows and listens at Karaba’s hut, then returns to repeat Morello’s stories to his villagers. Later, Morello returns, but she will not say why Karaba let her go. This tale forecasts how Kirikou will grow up to become a great griot (storyteller). In #5, the hot, dry harmattan wind irritates everyone, making the babies cry. The wind blows the noise to Karaba, who orders the villagers to shut their babies up. Kirikou tries to amuse them by making music by blowing on a blade of grass, but this annoys Karaba who has her fetishes destroy it. Kirikou’s mother secretly teaches him to make a proper flute, and the villagers join him with improvised instruments. Their music is so good that Karaba sends her fetishes to ask them to play louder, then amazes everyone by joining them herself.
Kirikou et les Hommes et les Femmes was the first Kirikou feature produced in stereoscopic 3D, at producer Didier Brunner’s Parisian Les Armateurs animation studio. It was nominated at the 2013 Cannes festival for the César Award for Best Animated Film.
Le Jour des Corneilles (The Day of the Crows), directed by Jean-Christophe Dessaint. 96 minutes. October 24, 2012.
In a deliberately vague setting, presumably rural France between World Wars I and II (but with some war going on), adult Courge (Pumpin) is a hairy, bearded wild man, an “Ogre” living in a forest with his son, about ten, also named Courge. The boy is happy, living a pre-civilization Tarzan existence. The only education that Courge gives his son is to tell him that if he ever leaves the forest, “the world beyond will get you”. But when Courge is gravely injured in an accident, the boy hesitantly ventures outside the forest looking for help. He is amazed to discover a village and civilization. The townsfolk are prejudiced against the Courges, but the kindly doctor (who is treating the wounded from some war) undertakes to heal Courge, telling his daughter Manon (also about ten) to meanwhile civilize the young Courge – introduce him to baths and clothes. The Courges are gradually healed and civilized, but the townsfolk led by Mme.Ronce (Mrs. Bramble) want them out of town as soon as possible. The adult Courge is delighted to return to the forest, but “Courge Junior” has mixed feelings at giving up civilization. When Manon follows them to learn how Junior is doing, she is dumbfounded by the boy’s self-sufficiency and his easy acceptance of “the forest spirits”; silent people with animal heads, including a woman with a deer’s head that Junior casually says is the ghost of his mother, who died giving birth to him. Junior’s semi-civilization results in his learning to appreciate the beauty of nature, curing an injured crow and making a pet of it instead of eating it, and looking for “his father’s love” which he thinks is something tangible. But when he protects his pet crow from his father, the flock of crows adopts him …
Le Jour des Corneilles, adapted from the 2005 novel by Québécois author Jean-François Beauchemin, was enthusiastically reviewed as showing the “beauty of nature” influence of Hayao Miyazaki, and for bring the final role of actor-director Claude Chabrol (the voice of the Doctor) before his death. The feature had a French all-star voice cast; besides Chabrol as the Docter, it starred Jean Reno as the Courge ogre, and Isabelle Carré as Manon. It debuted at the 2012 Annecy Film Festival, and was a selection of other festivals. First-time director Dessaint was an animation director on the Oggy et les Cafards TV series, and on the Tous a l’Ouest and Le Chat du Rabbin features.
Ernest et Célestine, directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner. 79 minutes. December 12, 2012.
In a world where the bears live Up Above and the mice live Down Below and everyone is obsessed with teeth, Célestine is a young mouse orphan. La Grise (the Gray One), the old mouse head of the orphanage, terrorizes the mouse orphans with stories of how the Big Bad Bear eats mice. But Célestine doesn’t see why a mouse and bear can’t be friends. Célestine likes to draw, but she is expected to become a dentist like all mice and is assigned to go up into the bear world and look for cubs’ teeth under their pillows. She searches in the home of Georges and Lucienne, who live above Georges’ “Le Roi du Sucre” candy store. Their young son Léon wants to eat candy, but his parents won’t let him; it’s bad for his teeth. Lucienne sells false teeth to bears who have eaten too much candy. Célestine is discovered in their home and Georges chases her into an outdoor trash can where she is trapped for the night. Ernest, a down-on-his-luck bear street-musician, finds her while he is raiding trash cans and is about to eat her.
She persuades him to break into the candy store’s cellar and gorge himself on sweets instead. Georges find them, and they escape with armloads of candy while Georges calls the bear police. Ernest takes all the food home to his forest hut, but when Célestine follows him, he tries to get rid of her. “But a bear and a mouse, it’s just not …” Célestine, who does not want to return to the mouse orphanage, refuses to be shaken off. The two slowly develop a true friendship. When Ernest finally takes her home to the mouse world under the Bears’ streets, his presence causes a mouse panic and the mouse police chase them both back topside. They return to live together in Ernest’s hut, but now the bear police are after them both. “We will not rest until Ernest and Célestine are found!” Both are individually caught and tried in traditional European courts, before stern robed and bewigged bear and rat judges, but last-minute events save the two. They are released to resume their friendship, with hints that the bears and mice may rethink their traditional fear of each other.
Ernest et Célestine, based on the series of children’s picture books by Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent, won the 2013 César Award for Best Animated Film, and won or was nominated for awards at international animation film festivals around the world. In America, it was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award and for the Annie Award in six categories. It was the first animated feature to win the Magritte Award (for Belgian films) for Best Film. It got a 98% “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes. The all-star American voice cast included Lauren Bacall as La Grise, her final role before her death.
Next week: 2013.