Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Azur and Asmar is not set in any clearly specified time and place, and the ambiguity is perfect for a tale like this. But the story appears to begin in Europe (probably France but the English dubbing makes that seem less clear) with two children being raised by same woman. Azur is the blonde, blue-eyed son of a noblewoman and Asmar is the dark skinned, dark-eyed child of the nurse. As kids, they grow up like brothers - fighting, competing, and very close. However, when Azur becomes an adult his father sends him away and throws Asmar and his mother out. Azur, though, is so fascinated by the tales his nurse told him that he journeys to her land - which could be ancient Persia or Arabia - to seek out the legendary Djinn Fairy Princess. But in this new land he discovers that he is not welcome, and that his blue eyes are supposed to bring a curse. So Azur closes his eyes and pretends to be blind. Eventually he finds his old nurse and sets off on an adventure with Asmar to find the Djinn Fairy Princess.
Azur and Asmar (Nord-Ouest Production)
Azur and Asmar is definitely suitable for children, although kids raised on the frenetic pace of American animation may find the leisurely pace of this tale a bit slow. But I hope that the visual splendor of the film will enthrall them as will Ocelot's charming sense of storytelling. Particualrly appealing is a tiny princess Azur finds locked up in a palace. She's so bright and vivacious that it seems a shame to keep her within the confines of any walls. So Azur helps her escape for one night into the city where she enjoys the simple pleasures of dirt in her hands and petting a kitty. We take delight in her discoveries and in the simple charms of Ocelot's story.
Ocelot has been making animated films for years, most notably a pair of Kirikou African tales. But this is the first of his films to receive anything resembling a release in U.S. theaters. I have been reading about his films for years and have been eager to see them. France has a distinguished although not vast history of animation. I remember seeing The Fantastic Planet at the age of 13 and being fascinated and completely baffled by its bizarre sci-fi narrative. Azur and Asmar marks a change of visual style for Ocelot. Moving from Africa to Arabia has encouraged him to create intyricately detailed backgrounds based on the vast tile work and carpet patterns found in the Arab world. Ocelot also revels in the seductive curves of eastern architecture. All this combines to create an animated world with a distinct cultural flavor.
Asmar of Azur and Asmar (Nord-Ouest Production)
Azur and Asmar's message about tolerance across race, creed, religion, gender, and class arrives at a very apt moment in time. Through his characters, Ocelot wants to encourage us to work together and to find a way to be polite and courtesy when dealing with others. The end credits even boast how this film was made by a diverse group of people who all got along. Ocelot lists all the countries his crew hails from including places such as Vietnam, Senegal, Iraq, France, Armenia and more.
Azur and Asmar (rated PG for thematic material, some mild action and peril, and in English, French and Arabic with English subtitles) is a gorgeous achievment. The visual beauty does not distract from Ocelot's tale but rather works toward making us believe in a world that is both real (in terms of the emotions and issues) and fantastical (in terms of the magic and creatures). I urge you to seek this one out on the big screen. It is simple enough for children but sophisticated enough for adults. And everyone can enjoy the lush imagination and stunning images.
Companion viewing: Kirikou, The Fantastic Planet, Wild Flowers (Czech)