The King and the Mockingbird. Credit: Optimum Releasing.
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The King and the Mockingbird: the story of an unlikely, elegant, animated classic

There is a fascinating backstory to France's first animated feature, but it doesn't need one - all the genius and magic lies in the film itself.

The story of how the long-unfinished animated feature The King and the Mockingbird finally made it to the screen in the late 1970s is a marvel in itself. This collaboration between the animator Paul Grimault and the poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert (whose credits include Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange and a clutch of stunning work for Carné, not least Les Enfants du paradis and Le Quai des Brumes) was begun in 1948. Based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep (which was then also the film’s title), it was France’s first full-length animated picture. But when a dispute halted production, the film’s producers released an incomplete version without the permission of its makers. Grimault launched a battle to regain the rights to the movie, then spent two decades raising the funds to complete it. The intact version was finally released in 1980, dedicated to Prévert, who had died a year earlier.

But The King and the Mockingbird does not need this dramatic back-story to make it impressive. And there is more to it than simply the selling-point of its UK release as the film that influenced Studio Ghibli. That company’s founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, have credited it as a key inspiration, and made it the debut release of their Museum Library label in 2007. (Which reminds me: a Ghibli season is currently underway at the BFI Southbank in London.) To younger viewers, the animation style may look unearthly and radical. It is hand-drawn for a start, with none of the rounded, flawless edges of computer-generated animation, but there is still an eerie smoothness to it; the characters move fluidly like ballet dancers, bringing both elegance and vulnerability.

There is a rich grasp of space and perspective too. In one sequence, a shepherdess and a chimney sweep, who have escaped from two paintings in the king’s quarters, are pursued in turn by a painted version of the cruel king who wants to thwart their romance. They find themselves clambering across towers and rooftops, and the chimney sweep sidles along a thin ledge to rescue a caged bird from falling. The simplicity with which the action is staged gives the action a contemporaneous tension. It is a common misconception that rapid editing increases suspense or excitement or audience engagement—that faster and choppier is automatically more thrilling, and sheathing the scissors is for squares. Cuts have to be used judiciously though. The vocabulary of modern commercial cinema suggests that the editing in even the most innocuous entertainment is modelled on the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin.

Throughout The King and the Mockingbird, music and cutting are used only sparingly. It is doubtful that the moment when the king smashes his mirror after being taunted by the mockingbird would have quite the impact it does were it played from multiple angles, or accompanied by orchestral bluster. The movie reminds us that restraint brings its own rewards.

The King and the Mockingbird is on DVD from 28 April.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Why I refuse to swallow the "clean eating" craze

Clean Eating – the Dirty Truth reveals the dodgy science behind the restrictive eating trend.

Some years ago, my sister fell seriously ill just as she was about to take her university finals. No one knew what was wrong, but we suspected – even if none of us dared to say the word aloud – that she had some form of cancer. How else to explain the vomiting and exhaustion, the pewter circles beneath her eyes? Many tests later, we learned the truth. She has coeliac disease. In the circumstances, this was wondrous news. All she had to do to be better was to give up gluten. In the years since, however, the sense of escape has gradually dimmed. What a pain it is. How lovely it would be for her to be able to scoff a bowl of proper pasta, to demolish a pizza along with everyone else.

It’s thanks to my sister that my tolerance for the swollen ranks of the gluten-free brigade is even lower than it might ordinarily be (which is to say, about as low as the Dead Sea, and then some). Coeliac disease is not a fad but a lifelong autoimmune disorder affecting 1 per cent of the population. It is exasperating to have to listen to non-sufferers spouting so much pseudo­science on the matter of gluten – lies and half-truths out of which some of them are making a great deal of money – though if there’s one thing that is more exasperating, it’s those same people refusing to explain themselves when confronted with expertise.

In Clean Eating – the Dirty Truth, (19 January, 9pm), a Horizon film presented by Dr Giles Yeo, a scientist at Cambridge University’s Metabolic Diseases Unit, the Hemsley sisters, Jasmine and Melissa, who eschew not just gluten but grains in their bestselling cookery books, were notable by their absence, having declined to appear. As Yeo tossed bones into a pan of simmering water, preparing to make their broth (“the ultimate superfood”), my blood was already boiling. What’s wrong, girls? Lost your nerve?

Yeo’s film, righteous and entertaining (if not, perhaps, sufficiently savage), took as its starting point the broad idea – promoted by the Hemsleys, among others – that while some foods aid “wellness”, others actively make us ill. The beauty of this open-ended approach was that it allowed him to show that clean eating is merely one end of the 21st-century food fad spectrum. At the other can be found people such as Robert O Young, who believes that alkaline foods can cure terminal diseases.

A one-time Mormon missionary, last year Young was convicted by an American court of practising medicine without a licence; as Yeo also revealed, in 2010, he charged a young British woman, Naima Mohamed, $77,000 for a stay at his “miracle” ranch in California not long before she died from breast cancer. The two ends of the spectrum are not unconnected. It was Young, for instance, who inspired the alkaline eating “revolution” of Natasha Corrett of the successful Honestly Healthy website. She, too, preferred not to appear in Yeo’s documentary.

The film built from sceptical jauntiness to what seemed to me to be a rather careful anger (perhaps the lawyers had been at it). One clean-eating star who did agree to meet Yeo was “Deliciously” Ella Woodward (now Mills), and with her help, he made a sweet potato stew, a photo of which he then uploaded to Instagram (social media and clean eating go together like linguine and crab).

But thereafter, he got out of the kitchen and on to a plane, eager to dismantle the diktats not only of Young, but also of his compatriots William Davis (the Hemsleys’ guru), a former cardiac doctor who believes that all human beings should give up wheat, and Colin Campbell, who advocates an entirely plant-based diet (Mills read Campbell’s bestseller The China Study before embarking on her own experiments).

Skilfully, Yeo queried the scientific evidence for these people’s claims and, in the case of Young, revealed his sweaty charlatanism. It was all rather, well, delicious, though I wanted more. Restricted by time and format, Yeo could not take the next step. What the rest of us need to do now is to call out the publishers and newspaper editors who enthusiastically peddle the diets of Ella and co, seemingly without recourse even to the most basic kind of fact-checking. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era