It's a French animated anthology film, containing six episodes that are essentially fairy tales. Also it's excellent.
This movie started life as a 1989 TV series called Cine si. It was an award-winning success, but only eight episodes ever got commissioned and the series quietly died. However nearly a decade later, Michel Ocelot made his first animated movie, Kirikou and the Sorceress, and that was both a critical and commercial success. He made a "midquel" in 2005 and he's currently working on another one, due out later this year.
That wasn't what Ocelot did first, though. His first follow-up project, cashing in on his new-found clout in the movie business, was a resurrection of Cine si as "Princes and Princesses".
It's six of the Cine si episodes. That's it. He didn't remake them, but simply put them together and called them a movie. Of the two unused episodes, "One Could Not Think of All" hasn't yet surfaced, but "Icare" can be found on a 2008 DVD release called "Les Tresors caches de Michel Ocelot". It's Ocelot's version of the story of Icarus and Daedalus.
It's lovely to look at. It's all in silhouette, reminding me of Jan Pienkowski. This is attractive, with even the most intricate character designs being built from clean lines and shapes, while in addition it adds a slight "radio play" quality to the storytelling. Metamorphosis and unmasking is simple and unfussy. Ocelot can spring unusual surprises, e.g. discovering that a beast has four arms. Most importantly though, as with classical mask work, the simplicity of the imagery pulls your attention to the quality of the performances, which fortunately are excellent. Both the script and the actors ensure that we can always identify with what's on-screen.
There's also a slightly odd framing story, in which two actor-animators (one male, one female) discuss the costumes and storyline of their next story before acting it out for us. The other roles are supposedly played by robots. This is less cool than the stories themselves, but it's still faintly charming and I like the way it draws our attention to the storytelling and the animation.
1. THE DIAMOND PRINCESS
Nominated in 1989 for the Cesar Award for best short animated film. This establishes a number of things. Crucially the boy is adorable, with no thought of personal reward doing all the nice, warm-hearted things that you'd expect of the hero of a fairy tale. He loves the girl. He always loves the girl. This is a solid foundation on which to build lots of clever little fairy tales with a moral, a sense of humour and sometimes deceptive endings.
This one's cool for the ants.
2. THE FIG BOY
Marginally my least favourite of the six, but I still really like it. It's set in ancient Egypt, partly because Egypt looks cool and partly because it's an adaptation of a real ancient Egyptian tale. There's a scheming palace advisor, whom I didn't find that compelling until he pushed his luck a bit too far and made the story very satisfying indeed. I'm slightly worried about what'll happen to Fig Boy when he runs out of magic figs, though.
3. THE SORCERESS
In the Middle Ages, with knights, castles and the world's greatest dragon. If you shoot cannonballs at it, it'll swallow them and then return them from its backside. How awesome is that? This is another top-notch story, for two nearly opposing reasons. Firstly, I love the hero's actions and the moral. Secondly, it's funny to watch all those doomed macho assaults on the castle getting squished.
4. THE OLD WOMAN'S COAT
Won the Annecy International Animated Film Festival award for best TV series episode in 1991. It's also set in 19th century Japan! The art's inspired by Hokusai and the story's weird, but fun.
Slightly odd for me to see a Japanese story in French, but it worked. Japanese names actually come out more faithfully in French than they would in English, except for the letter "H". I also laughed like a drain at "Monsieur Fuji." I can see where that came from (i.e. the wrong kanji for Fuji-san), but I don't know if it's a deliberate joke or a mistranslation.
5. THE CRUEL QUEEN AND THE MASTER OF THE FABULO
These episodes usually have a flavoursome historical setting, but this one's set in a retro SF future in the year 3000. Also Ocelot's women are often dangerous, either through circumstances (The Diamond Princess) or though being powerful and a bit evil (The Sorceress), but this episode goes further than any of them. The Cruel Queen has offered a challenge to the men of her kingdom. If any of them can dodge her disintegrator ray for a day, she'll marry him. Sounds like a good deal, perhaps? No. Would-be suitors accept all the time, only to be sniffed out in a few second by scanning equipment that can see through anything and could spot a flea on the other side of Everest. Disintegrate. Zap. Next!
Amazingly though, this blood-drenched mass-murderer is a sympathetic character! Firstly, she's secretly lonely and she wants someone to win. Secondly, her victims all volunteered. Thirdly, her games of search-and-destroy are high entertainment.
6. PRINCE AND PRINCESS
Yet another award-winning episode, this time in 1990 at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. It's the simplest, being almost a shaggy dog story, and the most comedic. It's starting from the premise of the Princess and the Toad, then taking it to silly extremes. (If you're as childish as I am, you might also derive amusement from the fact that "toad" in French is "crapeau".)
It's lovely. I'd recommend this for anyone, be they eight or eighty. It's even good for language practice, incidentally, being broken up into mini-stories in which the French is simple and beautifully spoken. If you're a French teacher, I'd recommend looking at this as a classroom exercise for your students. (They'll love it, which is important.) I clearly need to watch more from Michel Ocelot, not least his follow-up a decade later that's basically Cine si 2... a TV series called Dragons and Princesses (2010) and its compilation movie, Tales of the Night (2011). Well worth checking out.