French animator Michel Ocelot is best known for his 1999 feature “Kirikou and the Sorceress,” which presented an African-inspired folklore of a miraculous baby who singlehandedly conquered an evil but sultry wizard who terrorized his tribal village. The film offered a witty and vibrant production which appealed to both children and adults, and which also gave censors in a few countries the jitters for daring to present bare-breasted African women in an animated film.
How could Ocelot top the artistic triumph of “Kirikou and the Sorceress”? With “Princes et Princesses,” he didn’t. An episodic film in which all of the action is presented in silhouette, “Princes et Princesses” is a strange and erratic production that wears out its welcome rather quickly despite some truly wonderful artwork.
“Princes et Princesses” offers six tales, each involving the titular nobility in a fable of rocky or unlikely love. The stories stretch the centuries from the majesty of ancient Egypt to the light years of a space age future, with stops in medieval Europe and Japan along the way. However, anyone familiar with episodic anthology films like this is too aware that the genre always guarantees that one story will outshine the others: everyone recalls “Dead of Night” strictly for the mad ventriloquist tale while “Kwaidan” inevitably conjures up the grotesque fate of Hoichi the Earless. The winner here is the quirky story of ancient Egypt, in which a humble but dignified farmer earns the love of a young queen (and the wrath of her evil aide) by presenting an endless supply of figs during a period when the fruit is supposedly out of season. Inspired by the art and architecture of pharoanic Egypt, the segment is awash with hot and beautiful hues that bathe the intricate silhouette figures with the warmth and glow of the glorious North African sun. If “Princes et Princesses” consisted solely of this short, it would be a new classic.
Unfortunately, “Princes et Princesses” is saddled with five other tales plus ten-ton cutesy bridge sequences which find a too-whimsical artist and his apprentices, a young boy and girl (who play the eponymous royalty in each segment), trying to imagine what new gee-whiz worlds of fun they can draw. Their art studio is packed with drawing boards, computers, and a zany machine which puts the boy and girl into the period clothing of each tale they invent. It is a shame that Mr. Peabody and his Way-Back Machine couldn’t be brought in to provide some much-needed subtle yet subversive wit.
Beyond ancient Egypt, the other five segments are a rough mix of slapstick (most notably a competition for knights to get around a fiery dragon who guards a castle-bound princess), surrealism (an intergalactic space warrior who becomes strangely attached to a creature which is part kangaroo, part anteater) and stupidity (a gruelingly unfunny chapter where a newly-engaged royal couple keep turning into unlikely animals every time they kiss). “Princes et Princesses” is literally all over the place emotionally and intellectually, and watching the film is equivalent to channel surfing through a generous TV network line-up.
To its credit, the animation is often stunning and mind-boggling; a Japanese-flavored segment calls to mind the sublime art of great artists like Hiroshige or Utamaro. Ocelot’s challenge in creating an entire feature consisting of silhouette figures offers far more daring and imagination than anything coming out of Hollywood. Unfortunately, the self-imposed limitations of silhouette figures and settings would require strong and witty storylines to carry off the obvious absences in character and environmental artwork and “Princes et Princesses” does not provide plot or scenarios which match the creativity of Ocelot’s animation.
Unlike the earlier “Kirikou and the Sorceress,” “Princes et Princesses” has not been received with the level of critical or commercial enthusiasm; the film was barely noted when it played at Toronto last fall and it has yet to snag an American theatrical distributor. While clearly deserving the proverbial “A” for effort, “Princes et Princesses” nonetheless falls short of its truly regal goals.