Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Film Review #165: Kirikou and the Sorceress
1998/DVD 2000
Director: Michel Ocelot
Animation, originally French language; English dub

Safe beyond the summer downpour on her deep front porch, Ramone’s grandmother – you may know her by other names and accomplishments, but this one’s been on the front burner since the two-year-old arrived last Sunday from Florida – was complaining that she’d had a hard time finding The Lion King on a DVD she could buy.

“I’ve heard that Disney locks them away in a vault after the first couple years,” she went on, turning back from watching two cop cruisers and an unmarked maroon sedan streak down Valley Drive. “Then they bring out the so-called collector’s edition for more money. I don’t like that. I just want him to hear James Earl Jones’ voice!”

Well it could seem that Disney has a lock on feature animation movies. Of the top ten named last week in the American Film Institute’s updated listing – The Lion King is fourth on that list – except for DreamWorks’ Shrek (2001), the other nine are Disney products. But if we look past Hollywood’s marketing empire, brilliant animators are working around the world. I still remember a perfectly serious grown woman lighting up when she told me about The Triplets of Belleville, a 2003 French confection. Recently, in a batch of Cuban films – an on-going side project of mine – I discovered Juan PadrĂ³n’s witty and terrific Vampires in Havana, made in 1985 but re-introduced over the past several years on DVD and in some festivals because he’s now made a sequel. This week Persepolis – when they’re for adults, we call them “graphic novels” – came out on DVD too.

Then there’s Kirikou and the Sorceress. Whereas The Lion King is set in Africa, you may notice that for all its wonders, it’s strangely devoid of Africans – perhaps Disney’s solution for avoiding the dilemma of visual representation that might be taken as stereotype and thus spark offense. With a vividly differentiated cast of characters, Kirikou fills that gap. Released in 1998 and made available in an English version on DVD in 2000, it’s the first feature-length film by French animator Michel Ocelot, who’d been making award-winning shorts for two decades when his producers encouraged something longer. Kirikou was also the occasion for Senegalese composer-musician Youssou N’Dour’s first feature film score – he had previously rejected every script sent to him – and entirely employs traditional African instruments.

Ocelot spent ages six through 12 in the African nation of Guinea with his parents, who went there as teachers in the mid-1950s. He based Kirikou on the folk tale he heard as a child of an exceptionally brave and curious boy, born already able to speak and walk, who saves his village by out-witting the evil sorceress Karaba. This involves discovering why she is so “mean and nasty” to begin with – men once drove a sharp thorn deep into her spine, causing her constant agony – and twice rescuing the other village children even though they won’t play with him because he’s “too little.”

Besides these lessons, Ocelot packs a great deal more story into Kirikou’s hour and fourteen minutes, a length that’s feasible even for younger kids. Containing many elements of the classic hero’s dangerous task, Kirikou’s quest involves a journey – he must reach the Old Man in the Mountain (actually his grandfather) beyond Karaba’s fortress by getting past her guards, tunneling through the earth, vanquishing several beasts, making friends with some baby squirrels who aid him, taking flight disguised as a bird – in which he seeks answers and finally achieves unexpected transformation.

In the wonderful exchange between Kirikou and his grandfather, the old man deftly manages to support the child’s incessant questioning and still get him focused on the task at hand. Kirikou also hears the wisdom that he is safer and more powerful in his naked innocence than he would be with a special talisman, which the sorceress would only expect him to have and then turn against him. And unlike many modern movie and video game heroes, Kirikou finds something more creative and positive to do with his opponent than kill her.

Since this is a children’s film, it’s important to know that its original release was delayed four years because Ocelot refused distributors’ demands to cover or air-brush some nudity – the village’s small children are naked and the village women bare-chested – because he insisted this authentically depicted the world of this folk tale. However, there is enough else going on in this story, and the graphic style is so thoughtful and so completely unsensational, that it’s unlikely this will occupy children’s attention. If anything, this may be a welcome antidote to the hyper-sexualized bodies that saturate much of US popular culture.

Now screened or sold on DVD in over 50 countries, Kirikou and the Sorceress has been so popular that a movie sequel and a hit stage musical in Paris followed. No matter how tiny, we are all born with seeds with greatness.

This review appeared in the 6/26/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not enjoy a theatrical opening in Central New York & older films of enduring worth. Rent Kirikou and the Sorceress at Netflix or buy it on-line at By the way, Nat Tobin & Eileen Lowell, owners of the oldest operating movie house in Onondaga County, have launched a website & weekly e-newsletter. Sign up, check movie times and coming attractions at