Azur and Asmar
A wide-eyed journey of wonder
Kids of all ages and fans of alt-animation stand to be enraptured by "Azur and Asmar," the English-dubbed French film starting tomorrow at the Museum of Fine Arts. The brainchild of Michel Ocelot (whose "Kirikou" series has been a hard-to-find treat in this country), the movie plays like an illuminated picture-book version of a tale from "The Arabian Nights," with a calculated flatness of depth balanced by an awe-inspiring attention to color, pattern, and detail. While this grown-up critic found some of the plotting simplistic, his 11-year-old daughter was wowed: an easy four stars from her and probably your guys, too.
The story is mildly politically correct while still feeling as old as time. Azur and Asmar are two little boys raised as brothers, the former European, the latter Arab. Azur's father is a coldhearted nobleman who ignores the fairy tales Asmar's mother tells the two, but the boys each grow up vowing to travel across the sea and free the Djinn Fairy from her captivity in a crystal cage. There are separations and storms at sea and hidden keys in gilded fortresses, all illustrated with the wild profusion of a Golden Book by Henri Rousseau.
Ocelot uses the film to scoff at divisions of race and ethnicity; the grown Azur (voiced by Steven Kynman) has a fussy little traveling companion named Crapoux (Nigel Lambert) whose constant whining about Arab food and culture is portrayed as comically ignorant. The Arabs, meanwhile, look upon Azur's blue eyes as an unlucky omen. Superstition is the curse of this movie's universe, and enlightenment is the only cure.
Thankfully, "Azur and Asmar" mostly forgoes lecturing for wonder. Ocelot places his computer-generated characters against a backdrop of sense-stunning visuals, with graceful architecture complemented by searing colors and patterns that dazzle the eye with intricate filigree. A scene set in a spice market is so richly imagined you can just about smell it. The film offers much statelier pleasures than the poetic frenzies of, say, a Hayao Miyazaki movie, but it's not above whimsy, as in the character of Princess Chamsous Sabah, a tiny and delightful know-it-all.
There are no movie stars in the cast, and the closest "Azur and Asmar" comes to a name is Oscar-winning composer Gabriel Yared, whose evocative score is one of the film's many strong points. Yet Ocelot deserves to break out of the kiddie-film-festival ghetto in this country, if only to offset the damage caused to your children's sensibilities by movies like "Space Chimps." Some of the images in "Azur and Asmar" could hang on your wall. The movie itself should be playing in a multiplex.