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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 King and the Mockingbird.
The King and the Mockingbird. Credit: Optimum Releasing.

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.