You know this is a cruel, cruel world when the new (and painfully atrocious) French animated feature “The Triplets of Bellevile” is praised as a work of magic and imagination when a true masterpiece of innovative French animation, Paul Grimault’s 1952 feature “The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird,” languishes in virtual obscurity.
Whereas “The Triplets of Belleville” engages in coarse, vulgar and nasty humor, “The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird” is a whirlwind of charming, provocative and progressive wit and imagination. Both films have a considerable quotient of violence, but “The Triplets of Belleville” is packed with cruel and miserable on-screen violence (especially towards animals, with frogs graphically impaled on skewers) while “The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird” wisely uses the threat of violence while keeping the malevolence of the actual actions carefully off the screen.
“The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird” is inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep,” although many liberties were taken that actually improved the original simple tale. In this version, the story is centered in a mythical kingdom ruled by a cross-eyed, nasty little monarch with a fondness for hunting birds. One of his intended victims is the baby bird belonging to Mr. Wonderbird, a gregarious and hefty avian raconteur who wears a silk top hat and who lost his dear wife to the king’s rifle months earlier. Mr. Wonderbird spreads his massive wings and arrives in the nick of time to save his offspring and humiliate the sputtering king in front of his sycophantic courtiers.
The king, furious at his embarrassment, retires to the royal apartments in his mega-palace. The royal residence is 96 stories up in the sky and approachable only by a special elevator. In his bedroom, the king views his art collection: a too-accurate portrait of himself, the portrait of a gorgeous young shepherdess (whom the king ogles after with lust) and the portrait of a lithe young chimneysweep (whom the king loathes upon sight).
When the king retires for the sleep, the art of his bedroom miraculously comes to life. The shepherdess and chimneysweep, who’ve eyed each other with loving silence, reach out from their frames to share their hands. The king’s portrait spies this liaison and emerges from its frame. The king awakens from his sleep to view this bizarre happening, and the portrait disposes of the real monarch down a trap door, assuming the royal identity.
The shepherdess and the chimneysweep escape from the bedroom through a window and are rescued by Mr. Wonderbird, who volunteers to guide them to safety. This is easier said than done, as the portrait-king directs an army of flying policemen (who swoop through the air on bat wings) to hunt down the fleeing lovers across the canals, alleys and rooftops of the kingdom. Mr. Wonderbird and his party are eventually arrested, with the bird and the chimneysweep thrown in a dungeon where lions, tigers and a polar bear are used to feast on prisoners. The shepherdess is imprisoned pending her marriage to the king, who falsely claims he will spare the chimneysweep’s life after the nuptials. But in the dungeon, Mr. Wonderbird is aided by another prisoner, a blind hurdy-gurdy player, to rouse the lions, tigers and polar bear from their intended actions and to revolt against their captivity. The king, who realizes there is a zoological uprising, then pulls out his secret weapon: a giant metal robot (clearly a prototype for Gigantor and the Iron Giant) designed to destroy all that comes in its path.
If you think Japanese anime is wild and way-out, you’ve not experienced true animation overdrive until you’ve experienced “The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird.” From the heart-stopping moment when the paintings come to life and share their love to the eye-popping image of the flying policemen in winged formation to the jaw-dropping sight of the lions and tigers responding to the hurdy-gurdy by standing upright and waltzing…the film never stops spinning creative sequences which are all the more astonishing in that they were put on film over a half-century ago, at a time when animation was primarily viewed as kiddie entertainment.
“The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird” is barely recognized today due to a host of unfortunate problems unrelated to the actual film. The film was six years in production before its 1952 French premiere as “La Bergere et Le Ramoneur,” but financial problems and disagreements among the film’s producers marred its creation and Grimault disowned the finished project. In 1979, he returned to the film and tinkered with it further, re-releasing it with a new soundtrack as “Le Roi et L’oiseau.” From English-speaking audiences, the film was dubbed with a British cast including Peter Ustinov as the garrulous Mr. Wonderbird and Claire Bloom and Denholm Elliott as the young lovers. Yet during the 1950s, Disney was the reigning force in theatrical animation and no major American distributor felt ready to challenge Uncle Walt. The rights to the film passed among several smaller distributors, who kept changing the title over the years, but these distributors lacked the marketing budgets to bring the film the commercial success it deserved.
Animation addicts who want to have their minds challenged by the power of the genre should seek out “The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird.” This neglected masterpiece is easily the single greatest animated feature created on the European continent, and its continued obscurity (especially in view of the undeserved praise shoveled on “The Triplets of Belleville”) is nothing short of outrageous.