Saturday Morning Cartoon: On the Eve of NYFF’s ‘The King and the Mockingbird,’ Watch an Early Short…

By  · Published on October 4th, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoon: On the Eve of NYFF’s ‘The King and the Mockingbird,’ Watch an Early Short by Paul Grimault

The King and the Mockingbird is one of those legendary animated features with a tortured production history, along the lines of Richard Williams’s The Thief and the Cobbler and Yuri Norshtein’s still-unfinished The Overcoat. French artist Paul Grimault began the project in the late 1940s under the title The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep, taken from a Hans Christian Andersen story. The script was by Jacques Prévert, by that point one of the most important poets and screenwriters working in France. In spite of all these talents, however, production stalled and a great deal of money was lost. Grimault’s studio, Les Gemeaux, was forced to close and his former partner released an unfinished version without his permission in 1952.

Eventually Grimault regained the rights to the project, secured funding and was able to finally complete his own version of the project in the late 1970s. It was renamed Le Roi et l’oiseau, literally “The King and the Bird” in French. In 1980 it was released, with a new voice cast and an entirely new score by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar. This triumph, long-awaited by animation fans, was essentially confined to its home country. For many years it was unavailable to an English-language audience.

Until now! The King and the Mockingbird, as it is now known in English, was given a UK release last year. Now it is moving over to the US. A new digital restoration of the 1980 version by StudioCanal, with English subtitles, will be getting its North American premiere this weekend at New York Film Festival. An upcoming release is planned by Rialto Pictures. It certainly holds up. Grimault’s final product is a stately, graceful allegory set in a fantastical palace. The king is an absurd, cross-eyed parody of political incompetence. The bird is a verbose and witty parent who lives atop the royal apartments. Their battle over the fate of Andersen’s shepherdess and chimneysweep unfolds in front of a gorgeous Venetian-inspired landscape complete with canals and a pride of hungry lions. It’s thrilling and troubling finale is among the most stunning in animation history.

To celebrate this premiere and prepare for the wider release of the film, let’s take a look at one of Grimault’s charming short cartoons from before the unfortunate demise of his studio. Les Passagers de la Grande Ourse (The Passengers of the Great She-Bear) is another high flying film, though this time the winged beast is an airship rather than a charismatic parrot. The vessel in question is “La Grande Ourse,” quite literally an “air ship.” The opening joke shows an enormous ocean liner with some gigantic balloons tied to the top. It is docked on land, of course, next to a young boy and his dog who are plotting their way on board.

The two end up in the engine room just as La Grande Ourse is about to take off. It rises into the sky with the grace of a confused object in a Salvador Dalí painting, which is to say that it makes absolutely no rational sense but is beautiful anyway. Grimault’s sense of surrealism ties this early short to The King and the Mockingbird, though it is a surrealism that is always close to the assured magic of fairy tales. The boy and his dog wander through empty, almost austere frames on an airship that seems entirely vacant. Every shot seems both lonely and full of possibility.

That potential is fulfilled by Grimault in small increments. His art involves the skillful withholding of surreal images until necessary, maintaining a sense of wonder throughout. A mysterious robot, a vicious bird, a terrifying solo flight through the air all arrive in due time. While not exactly a complete triumph, Les Passagers de la Grande Ourse is a fascinating glimpse at the art that was to come, a brief taste of the manifold wonders of The King and the Mockingbird.

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