October 26, 2014 posted by

French Animation. Part 1: The Beginning

It seems that it’s time to remind everyone that I am interested in more than just Japanese animation.

There has been a fair bit of publicity in the last decade for French-language animated features. The Triplets of Belleville. A Town Called Panic. A Cat in Paris. The Rabbi’s Cat. The Illusionist. Ernest and Celestine. And those are just the French features shown theatrically in America. Those not shown theatrically, either not shown at all or released only on DVD, either as fine-art features or as kids’ cartoons, include The Painting. A Monster in Paris. The Suicide Shop. The Day of the Crows. Oggy and the Cockroaches: The Movie. Cinderella: Once Upon a Time in the Old West. All of Michel Ocelot’s features. Raining Cats and Frogs. Mia and the Migoo. Nocturne. That animated feature of Puss in Boots marketed in America in 2012 as a DVD “mockbuster” of DreamWorks Animation’s 2011 Puss in Boots, although it was shown theatrically in 2009 in Europe. (There was also the 2011 U.S.-made 41-minute direct-to-DVD Puss in Boots: A Furry Tail that was a genuine mockbuster.) Santa’s Apprentice and its sequel, Santa’s Apprentice and the Magic Snowflake, although the Weinstein Brothers may be planning today to acquire them for a future American theatrical release.

Reynaud-PantomimesThis is a survey of French-language animation. It includes mostly French and Belgian animation, plus a few Luxumbourgois features, and even one or two made in Quebec for only the French-speaking part of Canada. As far as I know, French-language animation for the former French colonies of Africa and Southeast Asia does not exist – yet.

Looking backward, there have been quite a few French animated features shown in America, and each of them has had a reasonable amount of attention. Despite this, there has been much more French animation than most Americans are aware of. I am unaware of any comprehensive overview in English of Francophone animation. Here is a very brief summary to remedy that omission.

French animation goes back to 1908, although there was cinematic projection of non-animated cartoons in 1892, when Charles-Émile Reynaud (1844-1918) made and showed three productions of slide-projected cartoons at his Théâtre Optique at the Musée Grévin in Paris. Wikipedia says, “On 28 October 1892 he gave the first public performance of a moving picture show at the Musée Grévin in Paris. The show, billed as Pantomimes Lumineuses, included three cartoons, Pauvre Pierrot, Un bon bock, and Le clown et ses chiens, each consisting of 500 to 600 individually painted images and lasting about 15 minutes. Reynaud acted as the projectionist and the show was accompanied by a piano player. Although the films shown by the Lumière Brothers in 1895 eclipsed it, the show stayed at the Musée Grévin until 1900 by which time over 500,000 people had seen it.”

The Lumière Brothers’, and Georges Méliès’ films, were mostly live-action. True cinematic animation began with Fantasmagorie by Émile Cohl (1857-1938) in 1908. Cohl is widely recognized as “The Father of the Animated Cartoon”, although other films had shown animation earlier, notably Humorous Phases of Funny Faces by the American J. Stuart Blackton (April 1906). Cohl was an artist working for the Gaumont Film Company when The Haunted Hotel, a live-action film directed by Blackton with some stop-motion animated objects, played in Paris in April l907. It was a popular success and created a demand for similar films. Cohl made films that were all animated cartoons with simple plots. Fantasmagorie was made from February to May – June 1908, and debuted on August 17, 1908. It is considered the first fully animated film since it had a semblance of a plot, not just moving cartoon drawings, although its “story” heavily featured characters metamorphing into objects or each other. (During the 1880s Cohl had been one of the leaders of the absurdist “Incoherent” art movement. In 1885 it hosted a masked ball to which Cohl went costumed as an artichoke). Cohl made two more animated cartoons during 1908, “Le Cauchemar du fantoche” (The Puppet’s Nightmare) and “Un Drame chez les fantoches” (A Drama Among the Puppets).

Fantasmagorie, only 1 minute and 20 seconds, and Cohl’s other fantastic films were extremely popular, in America and Britain as well as in France. Some believe that it was seeing Fantasmagorie that influenced Winsor McCay into making his Little Nemo in 1911. After Un Drame chez les fantoches, Cohl concentrated on more easily-made live-action films, though not giving up using the camera for special effects, in such films as Monsieur Clown chez les Lilliputiens (1909; “inspired” by Gulliver’s Travels) and Les beaux-arts de Jocko (April 27, 1909, 10 minutes; shown in America as The Automatic Monkey). One of his ten 1911 live-action Jobard films, starring the comedian Jobard (Lucien Cazalis), was the first to use the pixilation technique. In early 1912 he moved to the Éclair company, which had a studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Éclair American, and Cohl was briefly sent there. One of his assignments there was to create the first animated cartoon series, based on George McManus’ newspaper comic strip The Newlyweds (featuring the spoiled brat “Baby Snookums”). Cohl made thirteen Newlyweds cartoons during 1913; the newspaper advertisements for them contained the first appearance of the term “animated cartoons”. In early 1914 Cohl returned to Paris.

World War I was fatal for the early French film industry. Virtually every movie studio in France shut down for the war effort. Éclair remained open, but with only a skeleton staff. Cohl, too old for the army, worked on newsreels. American films, including animated cartoons, poured into France after 1916, and after the war it was easier and cheaper to distribute American films than to re-start French production. There were French films during the 1920s and 1930s, but more from a sense of national pride than for commercial reasons. These were virtually all live-action films, not animation.

Le Roman de Renard (The Story of the Fox), directed by Ladislas Starevich. 65 minutes. April 10, 1941.

The next French animation that gained attention was Ladislas Starevich’s (Wladyslaw Starewicz’s) stop-motion Le Roman de Renard (The Story of the Fox). This was a dubious “French” film. Starewicz began making stop-motion films in Russia in 1911; he was even commended by Tsar Nicholas II for them. He emigrated to escape the Russian Revolution, first to Italy and then to France. He only happened to be in Paris during 1929 and 1930 when he and his wife Irene animated Le Roman de Renard. The animation turned out to be easier than the sound track, which was finally funded by Nazi Germany and premiered in Berlin as Reinicke Fuchs on April 10, 1937. The French edit, which is the best-known today, was released exactly four years later on April 10, 1941. Starewicz (1882-1965) made other, shorter stop-motion films in France after World War II, but they were considered personal fine-art films, not commercial cinema. See my August 4, 2013 column on “Reynard the Fox” in Animation for a plot synopsis.

Le Crabe aux Pinces d’Or (The Crab With the Golden Claws), directed by Claude Misonne. 58 minutes. January 11, 1947.

This probably counts even less as a French feature, because (1) it was really Belgian, and (2) it was shown exactly twice, on January 11 (a private screening) and December 21, 1947 (to the public), and never in France, before being seized by the police. Presumably only one print was made. The Crab With the Golden Claws is one of the most popular comic-book albums in “Les Aventures de Tintin” by Hergé, It was serialized from October 17, 1940 to October 18, 1941, published in album form in 1941, and heavily edited and colorized as a 1943 album. This was what the stop-motion film was very closely based upon.

The film was produced in black-&-white by Wilfried Bouchery for Films Claude Misonne. Bouchery went bankrupt and fled to Argentina, and all of his studio’s assets were seized. The print of Le Crabe aux Pinces d’Or was sent to Belgium’s Cinémathèque Royale, where it was often shown over the years by arrangement to Tintin fans. It was finally released on DVD in May 2008, and today everyone can see it. Hergé’s cartoon-art album is famous around the world today, though in a further-revised edition, and it has been animated many times.


The detectives Dupond and Dupont tell young newspaper reporter Tintin that a murdered sailor had a piece of a label from a can of crab meat with the word “Karaboudjan” written on it. He goes with his fox terrier Milou to the waterfront to look for a story, and finds an old merchant ship named the Karaboudjan. Investigating, Tintin discovers that the ship is smuggling opium in cans of crab meat; and that the smugglers are led by Allan, the first mate, who keeps the ship’s Captain Haddock drunk and unaware of it. Tintin is captured but escapes, taking the sobered-up Haddock with him. After adventures in the Sahara Desert and with the French Foreign Legion, made more risky by Haddock’s getting drunken again and calling attention to themselves, Tintin and Captain Haddock finally reach French Morocco, where Tintin discovers (after more adventures) that Allan and his crooked sailors are really led by a wealthy merchant, Omar ben Salaad (a French pun on ‘lobster salad’). Allan tries to escape in a motorboat, but Tintin pursues and captures him.

This was the story that introduced Captain Haddock to the Tintin series. He was later given the first name Archibald. Allan was originally named Allan Thompson, but after the English editions of the albums in 1958 renamed the twin detectives Thomson and Thompson, Allan’s last name was dropped to avoid confusion.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

Les Casse-Pieds, directed by Jean Dréville. 71 minutes. November 26, 1948.

A series of live-action vignettes, with comedian Noël-Noël (Lucien Noël, 1897-1989) narrating and commenting on nonstop-talking bores at parties, drunks, practical jokers, noisy neighbors, people who always telephone at mealtimes or after midnight, and similar casse-pieds (pests); like the American live-action comedy shorts of Pete Smith or Robert Benchley of the 1940s. IMDb says, “Much use of trick photography, montages, puppets and animation along with some adult Gallic wit and gentle satire.”

Next Week: Part 2 of my survey of French Animation.


  • Cool article. Just out of curiosity does the German version of Reynard still exist?

    • I don’t know. All of the articles say that the French dub is the most easily accessible today, but they don’t say that any others are totally lost. But the French dub is the only one that is mentioned online.

  • No mention of Persepolis here, in spite of the fact that Marjane Satrapi emigrated to France and co-directed the film with French director/cartoonist Vincent Paronnaud!

    • This goes up to about 1950. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud did not make “Persepolis” before 1951. Don’t worry; I’ll get around to “Persepolis” in due time; but there is a lot of other French animation first.

  • Strange to read a history of French animation without a mention of Paul Grimault, arguably the most influential French animator in the 1940’s (for example Dutch animation pioneer Marten Toonder mentioned him as the greatest European animator).

    • Well, Paul Grimault’s true opus had to wait until 1980 when that came out (unless you’re talking about the original version of the film that was released around ’52 or ’53 (“The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep”). I suppose Fred will get to that in due time.

    • Yes, Paul Grimault’s first 1952-’53 version of his “The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep” will be covered in next week’s column.

    • Yes, Paul Grimault’s first 1952-’53 version of his “The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep” will be covered in next week’s column.

      It’s rather something to compare/contrast both versions because, while they both retain the same story derived from Hans Christian Andersen, they otherwise act like very different films in terms of writing and themes employed.

  • A French reader of my column, Bastien Cheval, has just sent me this additional information about the production and only public screening of “Le Crabe aux Pinces d’Or” in 1947. It should have been sent here for everyone to read, rather than to me in a private e-mail — I had not known that Claude Misonne was the name of a woman. Thank you, M. Cheval.

    “Wilfried Bouchery was in fact an obscure producer (he never produced anything else) who met the Belgian puppeteer Claude Misonne and said her he just get the rights for the comic-book album “Le Crabe aux Pinces d’Or” directly from Hergé himself. Misonne built the puppets, directed the movie and her husband Joao Michiels was in charge of the animation and the lights. The shooting at the beginning was fine but over time, the studio was without money. Resigned, the team urgently finished the film, that is why a large part of it presents the puppets fixed or directly moved in front of the camera.

    The film has been presented at the ABC Theater in Brussels the 27th December 1947 in front of a young audience of 2000 people. Even if the direction team and Hergé were disappointed by the result, the reception was good. And next day, the film was seized by the justice because of Bouchery’s debts. After that, the studio Films Claude Misonne directed some animated shorts and moved into the documentary for Belgian television. Bouchery completely disappeared and nobody heard about him again ; he just send a letter of apology to Hergé in Christmas 1948.

    All this informations are confirmed by Joao Michiels himself in a documentary called “Moulinsart/Hollywood, Tintin et le cinéma” (or “Hollywood and Marlinspike” in english) directed in 1995 by Benoît Peeters, one the greatest specialists about Hergé.”

  • By “Nocturne”, do you mean “Nocturna”? the spanish animated film released on 2007. If thats the case, it was shot in spanish, done in Spain and the team was spanish. It was only co-produced with France and Uk.

    Great film, by the way.

    If it is another film i would love to know about it, i don’t remember other films with similar name.

    • Yes, “Nocturne” is the French version of the Spanish-French co-production better known under its Spanish title “Nocturna”. It was shown in France as “Nocturne”. I will cover it chronologically.

    • Co-productions can get very tricky, especially when consider what would be the original of language/region/country the source may originate from.

  • You folks can correct me here, since I don’t know all of the details. From what I have gathered in various readings, mighty UFA helped provide Starewicz’s soundtrack… and, therefore, his “Nazi association” was one of just finding a big film studio in Europe to help him. In fairness, many French and German studios were tied together financially in the pre-war period.

    I know we are focusing on the features here, but the Starewicz filmography is easy to find online and quite a number of his French “shorties” (I am not detailing the 1910s Russian stuff) are available on either DVD or online (youtube) if you search the titles. I loved how he recycled his lion and other critters from his feature for some 1930s shorts much as Disney’s Figaro and Jiminy Cricket made the transition from PINOCCHIO to shorts and TV. A handful were released in the US within a year or two of their French showings, including Frogland and Voice of the Nightingale. Warner Brothers-Vitaphone released an edited down version of The Mascot in 1934 along with their Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies and that version (I am guessing) was often the shown on TV until the longer (but still English dubbed) edition was available on DVD.

    In case we need it here for “reference” (*chuckle chuckle*)… his pre-Foxy feature French shorts:

    Dans Les Griffes De l’Araignée (In The Spider’s Grip) 1920
    L’Epouvantail (The Scarecrow) 1921
    Le Mariage De Babylas 1921
    Les Grenouilles Qui Demandant Un Roi (The Frogs That Demanded A King/Frogland) 1922
    La Voix Du Rossignol (The Voice Of The Nightingale) 1923
    Amour Noir Et Blanc (Love In Black And White) 1923
    La Petite Chanteuse Des Rues (The Little Street Singer) 1924
    Les Yeux Du Dragon (The Eyes Of The Dragon) 1925
    Le Rat De Ville Et Le Rat Des Champs (The Town Rat And The Country Rat) 1926
    La Cigale Et La Fourmi (The Ant And The Grasshopper) 1927
    La Reine Des Papillons (The Queen Of The Butterflies) 1927
    La Petite Parade (The Little Parade) 1928
    L’Horloge Magique Ou La Petite Fille Qui Voulait Être Princesse (The Magic Clock) 1928

    …post-foxy feature

    Deux Fables De La Fontane: Le Lion Devenu Vieux (The Old Lion) 1932
    Deux Fables De La Fontane: Le Lion Et Le Moucheron (The Lion And The Fly) 1932
    Fetiche Mascotte (The Mascot) 1933
    Fetiche Prestidigitateur (The Ringmaster) 1934
    Fetiche Se Marie (The Mascot’s Marriage) 1935
    Fetiche En Voyage De Noces (The Navigator) 1936
    Fetiche Chez Les Sirenes (The Mascot And The Mermaids) 1937
    Zanzabelle A Paris 1947
    Fleur De Fougere (Fern Flowers) 1949

    • Ooops! Skipped some!

      Gazouilly Petit Oiseau (Little Bird Gazouilly) 1953
      Gueule De Bois (Hangover) 1954
      Un Dimanche De Gazouilly (Gazouilly’s Sunday Picnic) 1955
      Nez Au Vent (Nose To The Wind) 1956
      Carrousel Boreal (Winter Carnival/Winter Carousel) 1958
      Comme Chien Et Chat 1965 (unfinished)

    • Thanks for listing all of these. Yes, this column is concentrating on just the theatrical features. There are enough of those to keep my columns filled through the end of this year.

      It’s true that anything associated with Germany between 1933 and 1945 tends to be called “Nazi Germany”, when much of it was non-political. The German animator Hans Fischerkoesten hated the Nazis, never joined the Nazi party, and flatly refused Joseph Goebbels’ direct requests to make pro-Nazi propaganda cartoons. The closest that Fischerkoesten came was when he did not publicly protest when Goebbels announced that his 1944 “The Silly Goose” short was “anti-Jewish” because of its fox villain. UFA (Universum Film Association) was Germany’s biggest movie studio when the Nazis came to power in 1933. All of its biggest stars who were Jewish, like Peter Lorre, were encouraged to emigrate to England or Hollywood immediately. (I think Conrad Veidt, although he may have emigrated earlier.) Goebbels gradually exercised more and more power over UFA, until by the beginning of the 1940s it was producing whatever Goebbels asked for. I assume that when Starevich asked the German film industry to help him with the soundtrack for his fox stop-motion film, there was nothing Nazi about it even though he may have dealt with German cinematic executives who were Nazi party members.

    • I did get carried away with the silly list.

      Only saw Wes Anderson’s FANTASTIC MR. FOX this past year, but I was pleasantly surprised how often it fondly “referenced” Starewicz. Even though the story-lines are different, much else is quite similar and it is blatantly obvious that the animation team saw the 1930s feature despite its limited availability.

    • How many people remember Adolf Hitler’s attempt to re-name Germany (Deutschland) as Great Germany (Grossdeutschland), after the annexation of Austria (March 1938), in emulation of Great Britain? “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer.” Nobody outside of the Axis Powers paid any attention, and it ended with the end of World War II in 1945.

  • Any plans on covering Jean Image’s “Pierrot l’Intrépide”? It came out on French theatres in late 1950 and holds the distinction of being the first full-length animated feature produced in France, was adapted to US audiences sometime later under the title “Johnny the Giant Killer” and resurfaced on TV broadcasts as “Johnny Little and the Giant”.

    • Read “released” instead of “produced”.

    • This post is only “Part 1” of a long series that Fred is intending. He will be covering Johnny the Giant Killer in the next installment. In the meantime, you can read my post on that film here:

  • I am looking for a producer from France to coproduce a 2D series with me. I am from South Africa.

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