Tuesday, March 10, 2009

NYICFF: Azur & Asmar

There is something eternally compelling about the archetype of the two young rival princes that crosses cultural borders. French animated filmmaker Michel Ocelot is also one for crossing cultural divides, as he does with his latest film, mixing elements of Cain and Abel fraternal competition with the heroic quest of epic fantasy. Ocelot also adds a pronounced message of racial tolerance to Azur & Asmar (trailer here), which screened at this year’s New York International Children’s Film Festival, and is currently in limited release across the country.

Azur is white, Asmar is black, but they are both raised by the same woman. Azur calls her Nanny, Asmar calls her Mother. Together they sit enthralled by her stories of her native land (a fantastical realm modeled on North Africa) and the captive Djinn Fairy, until his absentee father suddenly sends him to boarding school, cruelly casting out Asmar and his mother.

When Azur completes his education, he spurns the world of his waspy father, setting off on a quest to Asmar’s native land, in hopes of freeing the Djinn Fairy and thereby restoring the kingdom’s spiritual health. However, after roughly landing on-shore, he finds himself despised by the locals for his “unlucky” blue eyes.

The racial discrimination endured by the blonde, blue-eyed Azur probably sounds more heavy-handed than it actually plays out on-screen. He does find a measure of social acceptance once he reunites with her former Nanny, now a respected pillar of the community. Of course his rivalry with Asmar has only deepened with time and will come to the fore as they both set off to liberate the Djinn Fairy.

Ocelot’s animation is quite distinctive, mixing both 2D and 3D techniques. His lush, Byzantine backgrounds are truly striking, but the facial features of his characters are essentially flat and inexpressive, which is a drawback. In fact, both princes are rather dull figures, though the fish-out-of-water Azur is fleshed out far more than the resentful Asmar. Easily the strongest personality to emerge from his fable is, in fact, the spirited young Princess Chamsous Sabah. Of course, such matters of characterization should only concern adults in the audience. A&A has more than enough exotic adventure and fantastical creatures to keep younger viewers thoroughly rapt. It even ends on an Aesopian note that gives the story a satisfying twist.

A&A is an elegantly crafted story with undeniably good intentions. While Ocelot takes the time to point out a mosque, church, and synagogue, peacefully coexisting under the night’s sky, in the reality the North Africa and Middle East which inspired him, such tolerance is largely as outlandish as his giant red lion. At least it looks beautiful on-screen, like the rest of his film. It is currently playing in San Francisco at the Landmark Opera and opens in Grand Rapids at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts this Friday.