Animated Shorts: Michel Ocelot's Azur and Asmar

Last summer, this column raved about four different animators from across the world whose times are about to come. One of them was the iconoclastic yet traditional master Michel Ocelot (See: here).

This weekend, Ocelot’s master work, Azur and Asmar (2006), will make its English dubbed debut at the New York International Children’s Film Fest (NYICFF). While it has been at the NYICFF before, this time there’s a major difference. After the Fest, the film is getting national, admittedly limited distribution from the Weinstein Company. From the sounds of things, much in the same way Hayao Miyazaki got when the Weinstein’s ran Miramax and distributed his film Princess Mononoke with some help from Disney.

As stated before, Ocelot’s past features films—Kirikou & The Sorceress, Princes & Princesses and Kirikou & The Wild Beast--combined his admiration of silhouette/stop-motion master Lotte Reiniger with a brilliant color palette from both France and West Africa. He also incorporated a love of the works of the artist post-Impressionist Henri Rousseau.

With Azur, Ocelot has taken his personal style of animation to a new level. He added a radically different type of computer-enhanced animation to the film. The end result is the film now incorporates the character designs of 14th Century artist Botticelli (also called “quatrocento”), backgrounds as intricate as Renaissance period Persian tapestry, and some incredibly delicate work that mixes Peter Chung’s Reign: The Conqueror with Salvador Dali.

Azur & Asmar is a truly unique and overwhelming feast of the eye that makes one glad that HD now exists. Scenes such as when Azur first walks into his nanny’s home in North Africa, when he confronts the Scarlet Lion or wanders by the reflection pool in Princess Chamsous Sabah’s castle, one will sit there in absolute wonder. The only comparison are the scenes Richard Hatch did complete himself in his film The Cobbler and the Thief. The incredible intricacy of the backgrounds is of such quality and detail that it’s only rivaled by Howl’s bedroom in Howl’s Movie Castle.

Even more stunning, Ocelot did all the animation with only six additional people. His voice cast is larger.

To top it, the tale Azur & Asmar tells matches the visuals in more ways than one could ever hope for. Initially set in pre-Renaissance Andalusia, we are first introduced to the motherless Azur (initially voiced by Leopold Benedict), so named because his eyes are sapphire blue. Motherless, he is raised by a North African nanny Jenane (Suzanna Nour) who has a son the same age as Azur, Asmar (Frederick Benedict). When Azur reaches a certain age, his racist father (Keith Wickham) decides it’s time for his boy to learn how to be a royal. He isolates the boy from Asmar and Jenane, eventually kicking them off his land and then telling the boy they were killed by wolves.

Before their banishment, Jenane told both boys the tale of the Djinn Fairy. She’s entrapped in a crystal cage and can only be freed by a handsome prince. The thing is, the prince must endure a number of ordeals before he can free her. So, when Azur (Steven Kyman) does grow up, rather than take over his father’s fiefdom, he sets off to free the Djinn Fairy.

That’s when disaster strikes. Azur is swept off his boat in the middle of the storm. He lands in North Africa, where the ugliness of what he sees so appalls him he feigns being blind rather than witness this new world. This is when he meets the beggar Crapoux (Nigel Lambert), reunites with Jenane (now the wealthiest woman in the region) and she finances his mission for the Djinn Fairy. The trick is, Asmar (Nigel Pinkington), also quite grown up, never forgave being kicked out of Europe. The two boys who once treated each other as brothers are now the bitterest of rivals.

Yet the true beauty of the film is its subtle message about prejudice. The real tale is how Azur’s father inspires hatred in both boys in one form or another, and by only going through an ordeal together do they finally “open their eyes” and overcome their wrong-headed biases. In a press release, Ocelot claims to have learned this lesson when he was a child and his parents, who were missionaries, taught in a small palm-thatched school in West Africa.

“If I'm going to work on something for six years I have to believe in it,” the director recently told The Financial Times. “I'm interested in the state of the planet, in relations between the west and the Muslim world. I wanted to talk, too, about immigrants in society, but in the Middle Ages with a changing of roles. So in my fairy tale the 'dirty immigrant' is white, blond and with blue eyes. At school it was totally peaceful, there was no bigotry. We were mixed whites and blacks, there were Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, there was even an Anglican church. I had no idea people could be prejudiced about these things. Children can be very selfish and violent, but not for special reasons such as racism.”

If you want to find out when the film will be coming to your town, keep an eye on the NYICFF’s web site, www.gkids.tv. According to sources inside there, the national tour should start this Winter. As for those of you in the NYC metropolitan area, now is your time to see the film. It’s a true eye opener.

DISNEY TO WALK RUNWAY FOR LIFE

On October 11, celebrities took to the catwalk as they embarked on a fashion extravaganza through Disney’s greatest animated films of all time.

Chairs Robert Ellis and Terre Thomas and co-chairs Marlo and Tony Thomas were joined by Haylie Duff, Hilary Duff, Jaime Pressly, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Selena Gomez, Jon Hamm, Cybill Shepherd, Jason Alexander, Daisy Fuentes, Jonny Lee Miller, Natasha Henstridge, Skeet Ulrich, Jennifer Westfeldt, Victor Garber and many more as Disney and the Hollywood community took a journey through Disney’s greatest animated films of all time. Disney, in turn, used the event to promote their CG animated movie Tinker Bell.. The funds generated are going to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which got 100% of the proceeds. .

MANGA SIGNS UK DISTRIBUTION DEAL WITH FUNIMATION

Manga Entertainment UK has licensed the exclusive rights to market, sell and distribute a number of new anime titles from FUNimation Entertainment, the leading distributor of Japanese animation in North America, in the United Kingdom and Ireland, the two companies announced today.

Among the FUNimation titles licensed to Manga Entertainment UK are Claymore, Negima Season 2, Darker Than Black, Ghost Hunt, Jyu Oh Sei, Ouran High School Host Club, Sasami, My Santa, Save Me Lollipop, Baldr Force EXE and xxxHOLiC with the first releases set for later this month and November.

"Our sales and marketing expertise, coupled with FUNimation’s strong lineup of titles, convinced both companies that these could be some of the best selling new franchises of 2009 in the UK," said Colin Lomax, Managing Director, Anchor Bay Entertainment UK/Manga Entertainment, a Starz Media company.

ASIFA HOSTING HAHN PANEL

ASIFA is hosting an educational panel featuring super-producer Don Hahn this Monday, October 20 at Woodbury University. The panel will cover Hahn’s soon-to-be published book, The Alchemy of Animation and include additional guest animators James Baxter, Mike Belzer and Nik Ranieri.

The address and time are: Fletcher Jones Foundation Auditorium, Woodbury University, 7500 Glenoaks Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510 and will start at 7:00 p.m. For more information, contact ASIFA at alchemy@asifa-hollywood.com. RSVP’s must be in by October 17.

KILLER RABBITS ARE BACK

The Minisode Network announced it has acquired another brood of 30 Second Bunnies shorts. The web-based award winning shorts are notorious for what they make the crazed conies do in the process of parodying a film. This new batch should be no exception as they will rip right in with a parody of Saw.

Besides, what’s cuter than a furry bunny with a chain saw?

You can access these short via Sony Pictures’ Crackle.com; YouTube; MySpace; Hulu; AOL; TidalTV; on mobile at Verizon Wireless’ V Cast Video and SprintTV; and direct to Sony BRAVIA TVs via BRAVIA Internet Video Link.

NEXT COLUMN: Speed McQuenn and Tow Mater’s back in a series of interstitial shorts for the Disney Channel. Find out all about it next Tuesday.

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