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King and the Mockingbird, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A fairy tale that's gone a bit weird."
4 stars

Everything about Paul Grimault's animated feature "The King and the Mockingbird" is peculiar, from its extended gestation (it was started in 1948 and finally released in 1980) to its unusual self-referentiality to a finale full of bizarre French humor and things one does not expect in a movie based upon a Hans Christian Andersen story. It is a weirdly delightful film playing a few dates after having been recently restored, one animation fans should check out should they get the chance.

The mockingbird is the one telling the story, adding that it all happened when Charles V + III = VIII + VIII = XVI was king. He was a lousy one, caring for little other than hunting, which had already claimed Mr. Bird's wife and nearly took his son before he showed up and told the king and his court off. He also has a passion for having portraits and Strauss made, usually in his image, but one night the pictures in his secret apartment of a lovely shepherdess and the chimney-sweep she loves come to life. Apparently the king never got over her, and the ardor of his picture is even more intense.

When I say that this movie was started in 1948, that's not strictly accurate; Grimault and co-writer Jacques Prévert began an adaptation of Andersen's "The Shepherdess and the Chimney-Sweep" then, with an incomplete version released in 1952, the rights regained in 1967, so that this final film credits the songs and some other material as coming from the earlier production. I hope that whatever home video release follows the theatrical run includes it for comparison, because if it was anything close to a traditional adaptation of a fairy tale, it would appear that Grimault & Prévert had a bunch of new ideas during the twenty or so year hiatus. This thing is nuts.

At first, it seems like it's just irreverent, with a bunch of wacky cartoon slapstick such as you might see in a Chuck Jones production - in particular, the king's entire castle is littered with trap doors that allow him to banish those who displease him or know some sort of secret to the dungeon (or worse) at the press of a button, and he had buttons everywhere. The self-awareness that pops up as very contemporary things find their way into this nominally feudal setting isn't that far out of the ordinary, but the desperation of it can be: "The shepherdess always makes the king" isn't just a knowing wink at the audience, but a declaration of monarchial right. The fantastical towering city and castle is majestic but also creates an underclass on the ground who never see the sun, and the destruction created by the king's giant mech seems to take more influence from French sci-fi comics where both heroes and villains leave mayhem in their path that would be the envy of a Michael Bay blockbuster than even the darker versions of traditional fairy tales.

It's still a ton of fun, though. Grimault was wonderful at staging this sort of physical comedy, and though there sometimes seem to be contradictory influences at play, they seldom seem to be fighting each other, birthing wonderfully absurd moments. The more adult satire never comes close to overwhelming the childlike wonder and delight at the world he and Prévert have created. The animation selling that world is impressive as well, very consistent in its sole and high quality despite being spread over some 30-odd years.

(Though this particular matinee screening was only attended by a few animation fans rather than kids, it was an English dub with uncredited voices. A decent one, although I look forward to hearing it in the original French sometime.)

Hayao Miyazaki has said that "The King and the Mockingbird" was an inspiration for founding Studio Ghibli, though I suspect it might be just as much an object lesson in controlling one's own creation as being completely enraptured (see also Richard Williams and "The Thief and the Cobbler"). Even without that sort of trivia, it's as entertaining as it is wonderfully strange, well worth a rediscovery.

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originally posted: 04/23/15 14:20:49
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