Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bedtime Stories: TALES OF THE NIGHT

Capturing something of the elemental pleasures of oral tradition in charmingly animated fables told in beautiful animation, Michel Ocelot’s Tales of the Night is as much about the importance of imaginative empathy through storytelling as it is the stories being told. On a dark French night, a boy, a girl, and an avuncular man tell each other stories, looking through books and pulling up images from various cultures around the world. They discuss what kind of stories they want to act out. They want adventure, princes and princesses, love, death, and noble lessons learned, sometimes in straightforward ways, other times through twisty irony. Other times, the storytellers are motivated by a location, a hairstyle or a costume that catches their attention. Maybe they want an animal companion or a certain kind of music. They imagine themselves across cultures, across races, in very different characters and stories, smoothly walking miles in shoes unlike their own.

They’re in complete control of the worlds they create. And what beautiful worlds they are. Ocelot animates it all through simple silhouette figures, the puppet-like people playing out their actions before vivid colors and kaleidoscopic backdrops that form lush jungles, shiny gold cities, dank dungeons and dark woods. The seemingly simple style of animation is deceptively intricate, effortlessly creating whole universes out of big, bold uses of color and geometrical shapes carefully arranged within the frame. It’s a style of animation that’s been around since the earliest days of cinema. Lotte Reiniger’s landmark animated feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, used similar imagery back in 1926. And, of course, the shadow puppet figures have a visual influence that echoes back through time from Magic Lantern shows and shadow plays to cave paintings flickering by the light of the fire.

There’s a beautiful interconnectedness to it all, a sense of deep reverence for all cultures, all traditions, and all times. The plots of each short film the characters bring to life play out at just the right lengths, varied in pacing and tone, methodically linear and moral. They strike the right balance between surprising and inevitable, each one snapping shut with satisfying thematic finality, like a perfectly calibrated poem. There’s a medieval story of a young werewolf and the sisters who claim to love him. A young islander falls into a strange kingdom where the king offers him a deadly challenge. In ancient South America, one boy dares question a lethal ceremony. An African tribe rejects a young drummer’s talents, so he goes off on his own to hone his unusually helpful craft. A boy who never lies is left in charge of a talking horse. The film concludes with the story of a young man who wants to win the girl of his dreams from the sorcerer who is prepared to use magic to marry her.

Utterly charming, at once gorgeous and playful, Ocelot’s film moves through these stories one by one, creating a sense of paging through a thick, ornately designed picture book, swallowing the whole anthology in one go. Is it, then, too much for one sitting? Hardly. Rather than growing monotonous or repetitive, it grows lovelier, pulling along in a trance-like reverie, engaged and enjoyable. It’s miles away from the animated fare from Hollywood that, at its worst, merely grinds through predictable plots at a manic pace. This is a family film that takes its time, breathes and attempts to do something a little different. Ocelot, who has used a similar animation style in his earlier films like Azur and Asmar, unseen by me, has here cloaked his fables in the meta-device of puling back the curtain, allowing us to see the storytellers and through them embracing the idea of empathizing with the characters in the stories. It’s not just a movie with some nice little stories, although it certainly is that as well. It’s a movie about using storytelling to understand different points of view by watching characters take on various roles, about the importance of not just being told stories, but being actively engaged by them, to allow them to provoke critical thinking and spark curiosity.

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