Old Review: Le Roi et l’Oiseau

Le Roi et L'OiseauIn this film, there is a kingdom of Tachycardia, ruled by the heartless king known as Charles V and III make VIII and VIII makes XVI. He is hated by many, especially the birds who he loves to hunt. In his Secret Apartment, he dreams about a beautiful Shepherdess from a painting, although she is in love with the Chimney Sweep. The paintings and a statue come alive as the Shepherdess and Chimney Sweep try to escape with the assistance of a Mocking Bird known only as “l’Oiseau”, the Charles XVI in a painting also comes alive to get rid of the original King, and take the Shepherdess to be his bride. Will the Shepherdess and Chimney Sweep be together in peace? Or will the King take her as his bride? Will l’Oiseau and his children succeed in his help, or will they meet the same poor fate as l’Oiseau’s wife, who was shot by the King years ago? This is the tale of La Bergère, Le Ramoneur, Le Roi et L’Oiseau.

After the collaborative effort of Le Petit Sodat, French animators Jean Prévert and Paul Grimault started production on their next film titled The Shepherdess and The Chimney Sweep in 1948, based on a novel by Hans Christian Andersen. Two years of hard work, with 62 minutes completed, and the two lost control with their film for financial reasons and the production studio Les Gémeaux was shut down. Against the  Prévert and Grimault’s wishes, the unfinished film was released to small crowds internationally in 1952, where it was  known in English Speaking countries under many names such as The Curious Adventures of Mr Wonderbird. In 1967, Paul Grimault was able to get back the ownership of his film and was able to get financing for the film 10 years later after doing works on short animated features and even two animated pilots. The completed film was finished in 1979 and was released one year later under the title, Le Roi et L’Oiseau. The film was dedicated to Prévert after his death in 1977.

The completed version is basically a mash up of scenes from the original 1952 unfinished version and new scenes made in the late 1970s, with some of the scenes being added, updated or completely changed. I need to give huge respect to Paul Grimault and his team of animators, since there are a few differences but the scenes blend in so well and the changes are barely noticeable, and that must have been difficult to pull off after having a 27 year gap. The animation is very smooth in execution, detailed and very realistic in design.

The art style is really impressive for 1950s standards and even really holds up for 1980s standards, although the character design is a bit off putting. The Shepherdess and Chimney Sweep, the King and his Guards, and the Birds all have completely different designs that don’t bare similarities. It seems odd to have this kind of inconsistency appear in what is a really well animated film.

The music is possibly one of the most well suited soundtracks I’ve seen in any film. The music on its own is beautiful and memorable and with the film it really sets the scene and mood for the experience. This is possibly because of the freedom that Wojciech Kilar had when composing the music, as Paul Grimault never told him what he wanted in the soundtrack, and never gave his opinion of Kilar’s work. This freedom allowed Kilar to make the music to how he thought it should be written and it is a spectacular array of pieces which should need to be heard.

The voice acting isn’t at all special, mainly because there isn’t that much dialogue. It isn’t a narrative piece so the only real dialogue comes from the narrator/main character l’Oiseau, portrayed by Jean Martin, and he does a brilliant job. He is very energetic, loud, jokingly insulting and arrogant, really fitting the character of a Mocking Bird. The king, portrayed by Pascal Mazzotti, is done just as well, portraying the cruel and villainous man who acts with authority. The other characters are mainly bland since most don’t express that much character or even emotion, but they do their best and it’s not laughably or terribly bad, but not that impressive.

The story is very nice in fairy tale fashion, all the characters have some likeability towards them and there is a good balance of both humour and drama. While it doesn’t have that much dialogue, there are very few scenes where conversation is needed, and even with the language barrier any viewer can easily tell what goes on in most scenes. The story itself is very touching and it definitely well put together.

The only real problem with the story is that it feels like two stories mashed together into one, and it was distracting for me when I saw through it. On one side, there are the birds and their battle against the cruel and heartless King Charles V + III = VIII + VIII = XVI, and then there is the journey of the Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep. In a way they seem to intertwine to make one progressive and interesting story, but for some reason the film focuses on the King and Mocking Bird story more than the more interesting story of the Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep. In the second half of the film, the Chimney Sweep becomes so dull that he could’ve been removed completely to make room for l’Oiseau, the King and the Shepherdess. I also don’t really like the ending, it is an ending done right but it doesn’t explain or show any reason for what I saw in this entire film. There isn’t a whole lot of explaining in the film either, and I know the important storytelling rule “Show don’t tell” but when you don’t even show how or why something is happening, then I’m surprised no one got lost at some point in the plot.

This film is a masterpiece in every right, with impressive animation and a brilliant musical score it is worth watching, I highly recommend this film to anyone who loves animation and animated films as a whole.

Le Roi et L’Oiseau is unfortunately unavailable for Western Audiences, at least the completed 1980s version. The unfinished 1952 version was available from many low-budget distributors officially as “The King and the Mocking Bird” but also under many other names, and a version called “The Curious Adventures of Mr Wonderbird” which was narrated by Peter Ustinov is in Public Domain. The film has been digitally restored three times, twice by French Distributors in 2001 and 2003 and by Studio Ghibli in 2006. This unfortunately means that you have to look hard for a full version of the completed film with or without fan created subtitles but believe me it is worth looking for.

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