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 do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt