AZUR AND ASMAR (aka THE PRINCES' QUEST) Review
We have been very outspoken supporters of French animator Michel Ocelot in these pages for some time now. With his deceptively simple stories that reveal layers upon layers of meaning with repeated viewings Ocelot calls to mind master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki on more than one level, a similarity that Miyazaki himself seems to have noticed given that his Studio Ghibli has championed Ocelot's films throughout Japan. It is his African folk tale Kirikou and the Sorceress that first drew serious international attention to Ocelot's work and armed with a very different animation style the master is returning to Africa once again - albeit a very different part of Africa - for his latest effort, Azur and Asmar.
Playing like an excerpt of Arabian Nights, Azur and Asmar is an Arabic based fairy tale revolving around a pair of young men - the upper class European Azur and the servant class Arab Asmar. Different classes they may be but the two boys grew up together as virtual brothers with Asmar's mother hired on to be Azur's wet nurse and nanny. And so, much to Azur's father's chagrin, the young boy grew up with the lower class foreigner as his constant playmate and chief rival, learned to speak Arabic in his childhood and was raised on a steady diet of Arabic folk tales. Key among those tales, the story of the Djinn Fairy - a magical princess imprisoned inside a mountain awaiting a brave prince to come and save her, a prince who she would then marry.
As the boys grow the class distinctions inevitably raise their ugly heads until, finally, Azur's father loses his temper with both his son and the nanny, sending the son off to the city to learn from a proper tutor while throwing Asmar and his mother out onto the streets with only the clothes on their backs. Though years pass Azur never forgets the stories he learned as a child and when the time comes that he has rown enough to be independent he declares to his father that he is leaving home and setting off across the ocean on a quest to rescue the Djinn Fairy from his childhood stories. And off he goes, only to be swept off his boat and washed ashore penniless, shunned by the locals who - thanks to superstition - fear his bright blue eyes.
Shunned and scorned Azur clenches his eyes shut and swears to live life as a blind man. Since arriving in the country he has seen nothing but ugliness and his eyes have brought him nothing but pain and so he puts them away. Luckily he is 'adopted' by a fellow foreign beggar who offers to act as his guide and takes him to the city to beg a living and in the city, of course, Azur is reunited with his nanny - who has never forgotten the boy she raised as her own and welcomes him warmly - and Asmar, who has never forgiven Azur's family for his rough treatment and expulsion. Unwilling allies the two young men set off on their quest ...
A visually dazzling film - easily the most impressive visual piece of work in Ocelot's career - Azur and Asmar takes a bit of time to hit its stride. The pacing in the early going is clumsy, Azur's father a single-note charicature and the relationship between the two boys rushed and overly simplified. But once the film finds itself - right around the time that Azur finds himself washed ashore penniless - it is pure magic. Ocelot is smart enough to recognize that the power of mth and legend lies at least partially in its simplicity and he refuses to clutter up the narrative with unnecessary devices. The story telling is lean with minimal dialogue serving to bolster the jaw-dropping imagery. But lean in no way implies weak. Ocelot may not like to waste words but those he does use are used to great effect. His regular themes of diversity and tolerance are woven subtly throughout the film, as are issues of love and honor and family. I don't believe it's an accident that Ocelot chose to make a film set in an age where the Arab world was the most tolerant and culturally diverse in the world in our current political climate but as much as he clearly wishes to make that point he is also wise enough to make it subtly and not overwhelm the core story, the story of the Djinn Fairy.
The quest for the Fairy follows all of the classic quest motifs and does so beautifully well, a perfect example of why quest stories still hold so much power. The two boys learn, grow and change throughout their journies, emerging at the end as much better and wiser men for the experience. And the journey itself is sheer magic for all ages, the encounter between Azur and a shockingly crimson colored lion with bright blue claws being a particular favorite. The artwork and design is stunning, unlike anything you have seen in western animation before, a riotous shock of color and geometry designed to showcase both the beauty of nature and the classic patterns of Arabic design and tile work.
The slow opening keeps Azur and Asmar from hitting quite as high a peak as does the first Kirikou film but it is, nonetheless, clearly the work of a master.