by Kathie Smith
Feature length animations have a way of cultivating singular visions and incubating larger than life passion projects. Look no further than Kevin Schreck’s documentary Persistence of Vision, chronicling Richard William’s much maligned The Thief and the Cobbler, for an example of creative prowess and its tragic demise, but more apropos are the successes guided by an artistic power of one: Jankovics Marcell’s ambitious 3-hour The Tragedy of Man, Mikoto Shinkai’s subtle Power Mac G4 created Voices of a Distant Star, and Chris Sullivan’s one-of-a-kind stop motion melodrama Consuming Spirits.
The Film Society of Minneapolis/St Paul
Director: Paul Grimault
Producers: Yoshiaki Nishimura, Seiichiro Ujiie
Writers: Jacques Prévert, Paul Grimault, Hans Christian Andersen
Cinematographer: Gérard Soirant
Editor: Paul Grimault
Music: Wojciech Kilar
Cast: Jean Martin, Pascal Mazzotti, Raymond Bussières, Agnès Viala, Renaud Marx, Hubert Deschamps, Roger Blin, Philippe Derrez, Albert Médina, Claude Piéplu
Premiere: March 19, 1980 - France
US Theatrical Release: October 5, 2014
US Distributor: Rialto Pictures
Paul Grimault’s The King and the Mockingbird definitely falls into this category, triumphing as a unique tour de force but not without an arduous 30-year journey steered by the director's personal drive. Grimault began work on his film with poet and writer Jacques Prévert (who wrote the screenplay for Marcel Carné's Children of Paradise) in 1948 only to have the production pulled out from under their feet and released in an incomplete version in 1953 (as The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep) without Grimault’s approval. Grimault and Prévert spent the next 25 years wrangling the rights for their work, finishing with their original intent, and finally releasing it in 1980 (sadly, three years after Prévert had passed away).
A lesser film would be clouded, if not obscured, by such dramatic behind-the-scenes quarreling, but The King and the Mockingbird, now getting a belated US release thanks to a new digital restoration, is such an amazing piece of imaginative verve that whatever road the animation had to take to get here hardly matters—it’s here. Loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep with a twist of political satire, The King and the Mockingbird sails effortlessly through visual territory that mixes Victorian décor, Giorgio de Chirico landscapes and impossible Jetson-like contraptions—all propelled by a charismatic, maniacal monarch.
As narrated by the Mockingbird, this story takes place in the vast kingdom of Takicardia—ruled by an isolated despot named “Charles V plus III making VIII plus VIII making XVI”—where the Mockingbird himself had a nest. This microcosmic society, housed in something like the Magic Kingdom on steroids by way of Metropolis, is held under the thumb of this tyrant. The King hates everyone and is, in return, hated by everyone, including the animals which the King takes sport in hunting. The Mockingbird, a single father to his little chicks, takes great pleasure in rankling and criticizing the King and his servants in retribution for his wife’s death.
The movie opens with a ceremonious outing by the King accompanied by his adorable big-eyed puppy to shoot a caged baby bird. The King, a bulbous figure with pointy feet, arrives to an open terrace on something akin to a hover throne where his crown is quickly swapped for a hunting cap and the puppy scampers about. As he swishes down the stairs, French horns sounding and gun in hand, the bird is uncaged and he shoots his rifle to great applause (despite having missed the little bird altogether). This is a scene of masterful comedic characterization done with no dialogue until the Mockingbird swoops down to save his baby bird, sending the King and his puppy back to his hover throne.
The thrust of the story begins late one night in the His Majesty’s secret apartment on the 296th floor when a painting of a beautiful young shepherdess that the King has fallen in love with comes to life in order to escape with a companion portrait of a handsome chimney sweep. The two lovebirds pledge their love to one another but the King’s portrait, also animating to life, insists that he have the shepherdess for his wife. With a marble statue playing mediator, a ruckus ensues, waking the King and putting him face to face with his living, breathing portrait doppelganger. But his portrait proves more malevolent than the King himself—sending the King to oblivion through one of the castle’s infinite trap doors operated at a push of a button—and sets off in pursuit of the shepherdess.
The cartoonish cat-and-mouse story that ensues, with the Mockingbird helping the young lovers escape the King’s (or his portrait’s) corrupt grasp, lacks some innovation, especially to a generation nourished on Looney Tunes. But the visualization of this good vs. evil carnival, replete with wildly creative characters, is bar none. The King and his police ride rotund personal watercrafts though the moats; the elevator apparatuses are more rocket ships than any sort of lift existing now or then; the Mockingbird uses diplomacy (and music) to quell the appetites of hungry lions and tigers; and it takes a giant robot in the mix to bring the story to its Herculean resolution.
That resolution might be the movie’s greatest, albeit minor, downfall—a sardonic open-ender that does not translate as well in 2014 than it perhaps did upon its inception. The political motivations of The King are clearly critical of oppressive regimes but its targets are vague. Whether a comment on post-WWII devastation in France or France’s ongoing colonial diversions, The King and the Mockingbird is short of the specificity needed to make these metaphors relevant. That being said, its amorphous parable, sent down with captivating charm and flair, is pleasantly open to interpretation. But don’t tell Kim Jong-un.