“Kirikou n’est pas grand, mais il est vaillant. Kirikou est petit, mais c’est mon ami.” Kikirou et la sorcière’s (dir. Michel Ocelot, 2000) theme song was central to my childhood, branded in my memory. Ocelot’s film was shown to me as early as I can remember––I must have been four or five. Kirikou was on constant replay, a go-to for teachers at my school’s afterschool program, along with another handful of classic French animations––Barbapapa, Astérix et Cléopâtre, Les aventures de Tintin and the like. When I was 6, Ocelot’s Azmur et Asmar was released in France, and a year later, upon its release in Japan, my mother bought me both the DVD and a picture-book adaptation.
Azur et Asmar’s vivid color palettes are as vivid in memory as Kirikou’s music. But Prince et Princesse (2000), Ocelot’s hour-long collection of six short fables, always stood out to me; its silhouette animation is curiously rare, and unfortunately so. Princes et Princesses is a gorgeous hour of postmodern fables, revving up children’s stories with wit––that when rewatching in 2020, feels just as charming as a twenty-year-old. Though the stories are not all equally engaging, together they make a delightful anthology, one that highlights its love of storytelling and art.
A prologue frames each tale. We are taken behind-the-scenes, shown two actor-animators’ preparations for their productions; they bestow on us a self-referential moment in which we glimpse into their process of story development, costume-making and set design. The young girl and boy transform into the characters they themselves imagined, all with the help of an old man who brings their stories to life with theater projections and organ music. Ombre blues, purples and oranges fill the projected backgrounds, all of which are flat––aside from occasional texturing. The silhouettes themselves are intricate in design; the boldness of the backdrops emphasizes miniscule details of cut-out jewelry, foliage, and architecture. Characters move with a slight rigidity (as they are puppets), which is never to its detriment, if anything it adds to their magnetism. Even with no French comprehension, the film is worthy of a viewing just for its visual elan.
Of the six fables, Le Manteau de la Vieille Dame and (the eponymous) Prince et Princesse draw me in the most. The former tells the story of an old Japanese woman, clothed in a luxurious coat, and a deceitful man who conspires to take it from her. Unbeknownst to him, the old lady has both youthful strength and spirit, which she uses to punish him for his bad intentions. The story itself is quite amusing, though what shines through the piece is its love letter to Japanese art, in particular Hokusai. The old lady forces the man to carry her all the way to Mount Fuji. Once they arrive, the man has grown fatigued; his weary panting is juxtaposed with a daybreak view of Mount Fuji, the mountain turning a red-orange as the sun rises––a perfect reincarnation of Hokusai’s woodblock prints.
Prince et Princesse is short and sweet, playing with fairy-tale tropes. The royal pair proclaim their love for each other; the prince requests a kiss, but upon the fulfillment of his wish, he transforms into a frog. The pair bicker incessantly, kissing each other over and over, each time transforming the other into another non-human creature: a mite, a praying mantis, a wiener dog, a blue whale––the list goes on. After a final kiss, the prince has become the princess and the princess, the prince. Still arguing, the princess posits: now that they are in human bodies, they can live as each other and have their married life together. She can hunt, and he will wait for her embroidering by the fire. He interjects: he doesn’t know how to embroider! She counters: Well, you’ll learn! He slumps in defeat––maybe being a princess wouldn’t be so bad. She reassures him, her last words spoken as the curtains close: “There, there, you’ll be fine. Come here so I can kiss you.” As a child, I glossed over the short’s humor, entranced by the visual immediacy of their continuous metamorphoses. But at twenty, the tale’s musing on relationships feels much more relevant; Princes et Princesses attests to animation’s potential for timelessness.
*Another silhouette animation––one that is stylistically similar to Princes et Princesses––I highly recommend Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) which you can rent here.