French writer-animator Michel Ocelot deals exclusively in fables and fairy tales, but he presents them with a blunt directness that seems antithetical to the genre. Instead, it winds up enhancing it. In his best-known film, 1998's phenomenal African folk tale Kirikou And The Sorceress, the characters speak with a clipped, aggressive gravity that becomes its own form of wry humor. They're dealing with preposterous events—a little naked hero who speaks to his mother from inside the womb, then crawls out, severs his own umbilical, and runs off at supersonic speeds to save his village from a malevolent witch—but they're dismissive about mere magic, which they take as a given part of life. Accepting their own petty natures and learning about generosity of spirit proves far more complicated.
Ocelot's 2005 semi-sequel, Kirikou And The Wild Beast, retains the gorgeously detailed visuals and that hilarious tonal bluntness, but loses much of the compelling mystery, and the urgency of life-and-death situations. A series of short stories designed to take place in the middle of the first film, it begins with a typically straightforward introduction, as a character snaps that Kirikou And The Sorceress was "too short," and says that he has more Kirikou tales to tell. But those who haven't seen the first film will be lost amid the short stories' oddities, and those who have may find it hard to drop back to earlier points in the characters' development, and watch them recapitulate earlier dumb mistakes, this time with pettier stakes. Wild Beast is the Tales From Watership Down of the animation world—a pleasant but utterly inessential adjunct to an enduring classic.
Ocelot's earlier anthology Princes And Princesses, while less visually ambitious, is a great deal more fun. Alone in an office, three animators—a grizzled old mentor and two mildly egotistical assistants—devise fairy tales, then costume themselves (via a creepily simple machine) and play out their stories onstage. The frame story could use some development—like Wild Beast, Princes barely tops an hour long, in spite of packaging proclaiming a longer run time—but the stories are terrifically creative, tight little fillips, ranging from a 19th-century Japanese fable to a far-future love story to a silly fantasy about a prince and princess who change shapes whenever they kiss. The animation reproduces Lotte Reiniger's pioneering silhouette style, but the material is pure Ocelot: funny, sharp, and endearingly grounded, no matter how fanciful the concepts get.
Key features: None.