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Azur and Asmar
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by Peter Sobczynski

"2009 Gets Off To An Animated Start"
5 stars

For fans of animated film, 2008 was anything but a banner year for the art form. Oh sure, the brilliant “WALL*E” was a masterpiece that managed entertain audiences of all ages while challenging what ambitious filmmakers like the people at Pixar could achieve within the parameters of the format. However, once you remove both that film and maybe “Waltz with Bashir” (a work that I do admire aesthetically although I have serious reservations about it on other levels) from the equation, the rest of the crop consisted either of noisy mediocrities like “Kung Fu Panda” or “Madagascar 2” (after viewing the latter, my mother turned to me and asked “Do kids actually like movies like that?”) or outright disasters like “Fly Me to the Moon” or “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” (I won’t even stoop to making a “Delgo” joke.) That said, 2009 already looks as though it will be much more promising for animation buffs. Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” looks enormously promising. The trailer for the upcoming Pixar film “UP” contains more genuine entertainment value than most of the films with which it is playing. Most notably, the year is already kicking off with a great example of the format, “Azur & Asmar,” a multicultural masterwork that is sure to delight viewers of all ages--provided, that is, that they ever get a chance to see it.

The film is a fairy tale that tells the story of two children from wildly different backgrounds who found themselves being raised by the same nanny--Azur is the blonde and blue-eyed son of the nobleman who is the nanny’s employer while Asmar is a dark-skinned boy who is the nanny’s natural son. Despite their differences, the two are raised like brothers by the nanny and soon become inseparable. Alas, the good times cannot last and after a few years of relative bliss, the nobleman sends Azur off to study abroad with a tutor and cast Asmar and his mother out into the darkness, where it is rumored that they were eaten by wolves. Years pass and when Azur comes of age, he decides to cross the ocean to Asmar’s homeland in a quest to free the legendary Djinn-fairy from the trap that she has been encased in for a long time, a story that Asmar’s mother used to tell them when they were little boys. The journey is harrowing and when Azur finally arrives, he discovers that none of his theoretical advantages, from his wealth to his piercing blue eyes (said to be a sign of bad luck in this land), are of any help to him. Unexpectedly, he comes across both his former nanny, who welcomes him with open arms, and Asmar, whose reaction to the reunion is quite different. It turns out that Asmar is also planning a quest to free the Djinn-fairy and while they both know that there can only be one winner, they decide to team up for the harrowing journey that finds them coming into contact with fierce animals, fiercer warriors and a kingdom filled with multiple passages that can lead travelers to their doom if they choose unwisely.

“Azur & Asmar” was written and directed by Michel Ocelot, who received a lot of international acclaim in 1998 for his animated film “Kirikou and the Sorceress” and this film shares many of the same elements that made the earlier film so special. For starters, it is a work that exposes younger audiences, especially American viewers, to different cultural backgrounds without stereotyping or sanitizing them in order to stamp out their differences. It offers up stirring and thoughtful messages about tolerance, friendship and the stupidity of prejudice that children will be able to easily grasp without spoon-feeding them in the manner of so many other politically correct cartoons that spend so much time trying to be noble that they forget to be entertaining. It gives viewers a stunning visual experience that is as much of a feast for the eyes as any other animated film to emerge in recent years. It presents a fully-formed and compelling story that will keep audiences of all ages spellbound from start to finish--the climax does seem to drag a little but it pays off so beautifully that I am willing to forgive the mild sagginess of the buildup. It even gives us a full array of compelling characters--Azur and Asmar are interesting in the ways that they change and evolve over the course of the story, Asmar’s mother is an unexpected source of strength, Crapoux, a conniving beggar who hooks up with Azur during his journey, provides comedy relief that is actually funny and the young and spunky Princess Chamsous, who also lends Azur an unexpected hand or two, is such a delightful creation that I would love to one day see a spin-off vehicle based around her.

In fact, the only problem with “Azur & Asmar” is that since it is not being released by a major studio and contains no famous names among the voice cast, many of those viewers who might enjoy it the most may never get a chance to see it unless you live in a city with a thriving independent movie scene--in Chicago, it is currently scheduled for a one-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center starting today. For those of you who lack such resources, all I can do is suggest that you mark the title down until the day it hits DVD and take a look at it then. However, if you live in or near a city with a theater with enough foresight to book this film, you should make every effort to get you and your family to a screening before it disappears. You will love it, your kids will really love it and, as the man once said, if you aren’t careful, you all might wind up learning a thing or two.

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originally posted: 01/02/09 16:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Traverse City Film Festival 2009 For more in the Traverse City Film Festival 2009 series, click here.

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  DVD: 17-Mar-2009


  DVD: 17-Mar-2009

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