Nov 12, 2014

'Tis the Season for Revivals: "The King and the Mockingbird" at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

In this still from the "The King and the Mockingbird," (a Rialto Pictures release) the eponymous character helps a pair of lovers escape an evil king. (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures.)

The King and the Mockingbird, an official selection at this year's New York Film Festival, was a labor of love for director and animator Paul Grimault, and his co-writer Jacques Prévert (Children of Paradise, 1946). The filmmakers lost rights to the movie shortly after it screened in France in 1953, and it was not until 1979, shortly before Prévert’s demise, that it was completed. The animated feature (in French with English subtitles), loosely based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, will open at Film Society of Lincoln Center on November 21st. A beautiful example of the traditional cell animation technique, which in today’s digital age is generally seen only in shorts, The King and the Mockingbird is intended for adult audiences.

The setting for the movie is the “rapid heart” kingdom of Tachycardia in which a cross-eyed ruler falls in love with the painted image of a shepherdess. As it turns out, the shepherdess loves another man. Charles V (voiced by Pascal Mazzotti) is not the first cinematic anti-hero to be drawn into or undone by a love triangle, but this king is a Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles in Citizen Kane), his castle a monument to his megalomania. The plight of the lovers (Agnès Viala and Renaud Marx), and the king’s peasants, are delightfully chronicled by a blind musician (Roger Blin) and the bird of the title (Jean Martin, best-known for his role in The Battle of Algiers). That bird, which continually "mocks" the king, was undoubtedly reborn as the song and dance man Honoré Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier) in Vincent Minnelli’s Gigi (1958).

The King and the Mockingbird is a must-see for all fans of animation and, like every art film, should be viewed on the big screen. Projected at that size, it is possible to note the effect of hand-drawn cell animation, especially for instance in the graceful, slinky movements of the wild cats in the dungeon scene. While Grimault’s film may be compared to a Disney movie of the 1940s or 1950s, The King and the Mockingbird moves more slowly as there are less cuts to picture. Its message is a warning about the effects of an overblown male ego, or perhaps of capitalism itself, not a theme one is likely to find in a Disney production. Especially worthy of praise is the film’s  magnificent score by Wojciech Kila (Dracula, 1993), which is skillfully orchestrated and mixed. Grimault’s use of a simple, yet striking palette, combined with the movie’s excellent art direction (Paul Grimault, Lionel Charpy, Roger Duclen), gives it a muted and sophisticated touch that feels distinctly French.