Jean MartinPascal MazzottiRaymond BussieresRenaud Marx
The King and the Mockingbird
Medium: film
Year: 1980
Director: Paul Grimault
Writer: Hans Christian Andersen, Jacques Prevert, Paul Grimault
Keywords: animation, fantasy
Country: France
Language: French
Actor: Jean Martin, Pascal Mazzotti, Raymond Bussieres, Agnes Viala, Renaud Marx, Hubert Deschamps, Roger Blin, Philippe Derrez, Albert Medina, Claude Pieplu
Format: 83 minutes
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 9 October 2012
Here's where I reveal myself as a philistine, because this bored me. It's wonderful. It's charming. I love the animation and the characters. However dear Lord above us, did it need to drag on for 83 minutes?
It's not a mockingbird, by the way. It's a red-billed toucan, but that's okay because "mockingbird" isn't what's in the original French title.
Firstly, the production history. Paul Grimault started making it in 1948 in partnership with Jacques Prevert, but they had trouble with their producers. The film was taken out of their hands, the studio went bankrupt and eventually in 1952 an unfinished version of the film was released against Grimault and Prevert's wishes. Interestingly this version still exists. It's in the public domain. The Internet Archive has a copy with Peter Ustinov as the toucan, under the name of The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird.
Grimault never gave up, though. He got possession of the film in 1967 and then spent a decade getting funding. Prevert died in 1977, but Grimault pressed on and eventually finished Le Roi et l'oiseau in 1980. He'd renamed it from The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep, having made significant changes. Only 42 of the 62 minutes of 1952 footage made it into the 1980 film, which also has new music and a different ending.
What's good about it is its style. The film's regarded as a masterpiece of French animation and is particularly revered by Studio Ghibli, which doesn't surprise me. It's a delight to look at. The lines are simple, but they're full of personality and strike me as more like caricature than a traditional cartoon. The toucan is a joy. The loathsome king is terrific, while his castle in the sky is loopy fantasy and yet treated as absolutely real. Note the Bond villain trapdoors. I enjoyed the way the king's footmen and attendants often talk only in grunts and noises, as if he's a beast being waited on by beasts. There are even Dracula-butlers, flapping around on bat-wings (but not sucking blood).
The story begins with the king being a git. His target practice made me laugh, then his reaction to his new portrait shows that he's: (a) in denial of reality, and (b) a bad man. He likes hunting, which puts him in opposition to the heroic toucan, who lost his wife to one of the king's hunting expeditions. Admittedly this first act doesn't really have a protagonist, but that's okay because instead we're following the king and his life of casual selfish evil.
That's fun. I liked all that.
After a while though, the story takes a screeching left turn into magical realism as it remembers it's a Hans Christian Andersen adaptation. This bit's weird. I started wondering if I was watching a dream sequence, but no. The shepherdess and the chimney sweep show up and suddenly the movie decides that it's going to be about them instead. The slide begins here. The shepherdess and the chimney sweep seem like nice people, but they barely exist as characters. They try to stay alive. They occasionally get a few lines of dialogue, but nothing with any spark. That's it. The chimney sweep does one brave thing (rescuing a baby bird), but otherwise they're just going where the plot pushes them and we're watching two cardboard cutouts. They had more personality in the original Hans Christian Andersen story and that's not even 2,000 words long.
Thus the film flags. It never loses its visual charm, mind you. There's plenty of good stuff, like the spooky lower city of camouflaged cops and appearing staircases. The king has a giant robot! I also loved what they do with the lions, although:
1. I got uneasy when the toucan was lying to them. Another script might chosen to return to that for later payback.
2. Breaking out was, um, easier than expected.
3. What happened to the lions in the end? (Also a tiger and a bear.) Lots of hungry lions + innocent human population = large question left hanging.
With one exception, I like the film's use of dialogue. It's comfortable to do long sequences all with visuals, but it's also not afraid to let someone (e.g. the toucan) be a lovable windbag. However I can't help wondering if the shepherdess and the chimney sweep might not have been more three-dimensional if they'd been allowed to speak more.
Apparently this movie is regarded as one of the best animated feature films of all time. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata studied it frame by frame and later made it available in Japan through their Ghibli Museum Library imprint. I think it's a wonderful achievement, but I'm also not surprised by its low profile in the English-speaking world. I struggled. I admire its many admirable ingredients, but its storyline doesn't begin to support the running time. I could even imagine myself preferring the incomplete 1952 version, simply because it's shorter. Check it out, by all means, but don't be afraid to turn it off and take a few breaks from time to time.
"Does this world truly exist? Is it true that the sun is shining?"