Sunday, December 22, 2013

Five Years of GKIDS: Tales of the Night

It is rather ironic 3D films often feature one-dimensional characters.  In contrast, the figures of Michel Ocelot’s Dragons et princesses series are 2D, rendered through a particularly stylish form silhouette animation.  In a literal instance where “television is the new cinema,” six of the shorts produced for Canal+Family were aggregated into the 3D film, Tales of the Night (trailer here), which screens during the IFC Center’s retrospective tribute to GKIDS.

The old man used to work in movies, until he was forced to retire, while the boy and the girl are too young for the business to take notice of them.  Yet, every night they gather at a shuttered revival cinema to brainstorm ambitious films they would eventually like to make. All three share similarly romantic tastes, often staging fairy tales that offer the boy an opportunity for heroics and the girl a justification for some elaborate costumes and hairstyles.  Even the old man finds inspiration in these fables, finding the perfect locations online.

Shrewdly, Night begins and ends with two of its strongest tales, both of which happen to be set in Medieval Europe.  “The Werewolf” is obviously a story of lycanthropy, but it is more concerned with the rivalry of two princesses than gothic horror.  Easily the weakest link, the Caribbean tale of “Tijean and Belle-Sans-Connatre” probably should have been buried somewhere later in the line-up than the second spot.  The story of the adventurer, the three monsters he encounters, and a princess’s prospective hand in marriage features some problematic attempts at dialect, while sharing many elements with subsequent tales.

The movie lovers rebound considerably with “The Chosen One and the City of Gold.” An Aztec-flavored parable in which a stranger fights to save the beautiful woman selected as a human sacrifice, it is arguably the most thematically sophisticated of Night’s component films.  With “The Boy Tam-Tam,” Ocelot returns to the African settings of films like Azur & Asmar, which largely established his reputation in America.  It is a nice enough coming-of-age fable that gets a good kick from the percussive music.

Each of the roughly twelve minute installments is perfectly suitable for children, but the Tibet-set “The Boy Who Never Lies” is by far the most tragic, but that also helps differentiate it from the other tales (along with the striking Himalayan backdrops). Concluding with “The Doe-Girl and the Architect’s Son,” Ocelot’s would-be filmmakers revisit both Medieval Europe and true love complicated by shape-shifting for a suitably ever-after conclusion.

The influence of Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed is pretty clear throughout Night, both in terms of its silhouette animation and its exoticism.  Frankly, each tale probably works better as a stand-alone short, as they were originally intended. Strictly speaking, there is not a lot of character development in any of Night’s constituent pieces, but it is all quite elegant looking.  There is also an appealing idealism at work in the film, celebrating the transformative power of cinema and storytelling, like an animated merger of Cinema Paradiso and the Arabian Nights. Enjoyably different for animation fans, Tales of the Night screens in 3D screens New Years Day as part of the IFC Center’s GKIDS series, perfectly timed for the holidays (and also streams in 2D on Netflix).