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Dilili in Paris
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by Jay Seaver

"Some good bits in the middle of this animated mess."
2 stars

I'm not sure how completely an atrocious dub torpedoes "Dilili in Paris" in its American release, because it's got a lot of other problems, and it's entirely possible that the film's original soundtrack sounds just as flat and repetitive, only in French. Even if that's the case, this is the version that English-speaking kids will see, and while they've probably seen worse on YouTube, the way it's presented makes this film feels far more lazy than it likely is.

Dilili is a girl of about nine or ten who had a French father and a Kanak mother, and stowed away on a ship bound for Paris with a troupe of Kanak performers. Taken in by a Countess and taught the language by Louise Michel, she is disappointed that she is given as much trouble for her dark skin in Paris as she was her light skin in Africa, but on the last day of the troupe's performance, she meets a friendly delivery boy, Orel, who offers to help her see more of Paris from the seat of his tricycle. Orel seems to be a friend-of-a-friend of everybody in Paris, particularly opera singer Emma Calvé, and as such is a good friend to have in a dangerous time - a gang of "male-masters" has been kidnapping young girls throughout the city, and have their eyes on Dilili, who intends to solve the case herself.

Writer/director Michel Ocelot has made a number of films that have charmed audiences at kid-friendly film festivals, perhaps most notably Azur and Asmar, and for this one he recreates early-20th-Century Paris with mostly photographic backgrounds over which he places flatly-rendered characters that often have a certain charm but sometimes move in an odd manner, like the filmmakers are using a library of pre-programmed motions that neither quite mimic human activity nor take advantage of the room animation gives one to exaggerate. It looks like Colorforms, which is a nifty idea to have for this sort of movie, but isn't very expressive and sometimes has Ocelot caught in between, when he needs an original setting or complicate action.

It's also a mess storywise, full of Belle Epoque name-dropping and very casual plotting, from the start when Ocelot doesn't really supply a reason to get Dilili and Orel on this track to the ending which just stops, with Emma appearing alongside the end credits to narrate the wrap-up. There's a simplicity to the often-dull plainness of at least the English-language dialogue that may work well for small children, but it may bore older viewers (and I suspect that whoever recorded Dilili in English recorded the line "I am PLEASED...to make your acquaintance" said it once and had that placed on the soundtrack 48 times). As much as the sheer volume of love that Michel Ocelot has for Paris counts for a lot - the photographic backdrops can absolutely trigger a desire to travel and the enthusiasm for the luminaries Dilili meets feels absolutely earnest - there are times when it seems like there's not much else.

And then there are times when it gets delightfully - or horrifically - bizarre, and you wonder on the one hand just what this movie could have been if it went full bandes dessinées steampunk all the way through and how appropriate it is for younger children on the other, especially if you originally hear "male-masters" and "mail-masters" for some reason and the thorough misogyny of the villains comes as a bit of a shock (although I find myself appreciating Ocelot not sugar-coating what the worst men want from women in a movie young girls will see). Every moment where it becomes an elevated adventure movie, or is at least kind of cockeyed in the manner of its clever opening, is worth sitting through the same amount of the more bland material, though the balance is in the wrong direction.

There's certainly enough intriguing and pleasantly educational material here to make me wonder if the original French soundtrack improves the work enough to make recommending it a little easier. It's likely a very flawed movie regardless, but its American release does it no favors.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33382&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/09/19 03:44:42
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USA
  04-Oct-2019 (PG)

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