Azur & AsmarWritten and directed by Michel OcelotStarring Steven Kynman, Nigel Pilkington, Nigel Lambert and Suzanna NourRated PG*6*Goes well with: Fantastic Planet, Kirikou and the Sorceress, Beauty and the Beast
It's always interesting to see if an artist can move gracefully into another medium. Frenchman Michel Ocelot has been making unique animated films for three decades, taking established animation practices and turning them upside down, all while crafting original fairy tales. His new film, Azur & Asmar, is no different; it marks the first time Ocelot has gone the computer-generated-animation route.
But this isn't the sort of film that apes the work being done by Pixar or DreamWorks. Once again, Ocelot has taken something conventional and created something different. Instead of producing the deeply detailed and rendered characters of a studio film, he's created flat, two-dimensional images against hand-painted backdrops that are, in many ways, the star of the show. There is no illusion of reality here—you always know you're watching something that feels like a storybook.
The title characters are boys born to different mothers. Azur is a blonde and blue-eyed son of a nobleman, while Asmar is a Middle Eastern child of a servant. But both are nursed by Jénane, Asmar's mother, and raised as brothers, each desperately hoping to grow into a prince who might save and rescue the fabled Djinn-fairy who exists in Jénane's home country. Everything changes when Azur's father decides to train his young son to be a noble. He takes him out of Jénane's home, splitting the two boys and, eventually, casting out his servant and her son into a dark, foreign world.
Years later, Azur has become a handsome young man who finally defies his father and sets out across the sea in search of the Djinn-fairy. A devastating storm washes him up on the shores of a distant land, where he hears the inhabitants speaking Jénane's language. But here, his good looks are of no use—in fact, the natives ostracize him for his blue eyes. Desperate and alone, he feigns blindness by keeping his eyes closed and is therefore unable to see how truly beautiful the country is. That is, until, that is, he finds Jénane, now a prosperous merchant, and Asmar, who is also grown and who is setting out on his own expedition to find the Djinn-fairy.
Suddenly, once again, the boys are in competition for the one thing each has desired his entire life. Unlike the early days of their relationship, in this land Asmar is now the attractive one. Each will experience peril and trauma to get what he wants, and each will have to decide whether to accept his brother or betray him. And, of course, neither can achieve his goal without the other.
The storytelling conventions in Azur & Asmar are fairly standard, but the execution feels foreign. They don't necessarily conform to what we're used to seeing come out of the studios. Sure, there are themes and messages that remain universal—we can all be brothers no matter the color of our skin; age is not necessarily a prerequisite for wisdom; the advantages of being one ethnicity or another are entirely dependent on your location—but unlike in American films, these ideas are simply part of the story, rather than messages hammered home over and over throughout the movie.
What's remarkable about Azur & Asmar are the backdrops the characters move in front of. They draw on Arabesque patterns and design and become more and more intricate and gorgeous as the film progresses. The landscapes, the interiors, the fantastical realms where the fairies reside are undeniably lovely, and they often unfold with the symmetry and simplicity of a kaleidoscope.
But while the film is beautiful, it isn't necessarily gripping. It unfolds very slowly, and the swordfights and battles don't excite, perhaps because we're so accustomed to what is possible in animation these days. And the deus ex machina ending doesn't help. Still, though it might not be perfect, Azur & Asmar, which screens Feb. 13 through 19 at the Ken Cinema, is a refreshing change from the standard studio fare that plagues the multiplexes this time of year. That alone makes it a fairy tale worth watching.