August 16, 2013

"Tales of the Night"

        Next up in my collection of animated fantasy movie reviews is "Tales of the Night" from 2011.  It sounds like a horror movie, but in fact it tells six folk tales in a way that's appropriate for relatively young children.  The set-up is that a girl, a boy, and an old man tell stories together in a small movie theater.  Although it's never mentioned explicitly, the theater itself must have magic or sci-fi powers, because it provides a machine with which the young people give themselves the costumes and hairstyles appropriate to each of the stories, as well as allowing them to put themselves into the scenery and take the roles of the protagonists of each tale.  For the most part, however, the interludes in the theater are just the string on which the six stories are strung as beads, and this string has no plot of its own.  (Apparently five of the six stories are taken from a French television series called "Dragons et princesses," which in its turn grew out of various previous series, so I don't know whether the bracketing set-up was ever given more attention in those programs.  I know I would have liked a little more conclusion to tie it all together at the end of the movie.)
        The most interesting thing is the animation style, in which all scenery and characters are black silhouettes against brightly colored backdrops.  The backdrops have different colors and styles based on the different settings, and the contrast with the black is quite beautiful and dramatic.  The silhouettes were perfectly effective at
portraying the moods and emotions of the characters.  P and T didn't seem to have strong feelings about it one way or the other, and I don't know whether younger children would enjoy the boldness or be bothered by the lack of realism.  My guess is that most kids will just take it as they find it.
        The six tales are set in medieval Europe, the West Indies, Aztec times, West Africa, Tibet, and medieval Europe again.  They are based on traditional tales, but with modifications to make them more palatable to the boy and girl of the theater (and, of course, the modern viewer.)  This is most explicit in the Tibetan tale, where the girl refuses to play the part of the girl in the story unless she can change the ending.  Because of the lack of detail in the animation, as well as the particular retellings, there is no graphic violence, however these tales do include plenty of threat of violence, and an awful lot of betrayal.  (Also, in the West African story it is evident that the women are topless.  It isn't exactly pornographic, and it didn't so much as raise an eyebrow in either the adults or the children of our family, but there it is in case it's of concern to others.)  In all the stories honesty and loyalty are rewarded, there's a recurring theme of being true to who you are, and in several of the stories non-violent solutions are found.
        All of these tales were new to me, and I enjoyed their range of sources.  Their fairly traditional format meant the plots were pretty predictable, which may seem boring to some children (or adults), but may also seem satisfyingly right and proper to others.  I wasn't bothered by it, but then, I'm a big fan of traditional fairy tales.  The final story did have a surprise twist ending, which we saw coming, but which children might really enjoy.
        I think this is one that could be shown to children in the 6-10 range.  One advantage at the lower end of the age range is that you could always show single stories or skip any of the stories that might be too scary or problematic for your particular child.  The first is one of the scarier ones, so if you're good with that one you should be fine for all of them (although the fifth is sadder).  Our favorite of the stories was definitely the second, in which a particularly jaunty hero gets through all his adventures with kindness instead of violence.  We all really enjoyed his interactions with the three hungry monsters (made even more appealing by their West Indian accents).

[Pictures: Movie poster;
Image from "The Doe-Girl and the Architect's Son";
Image from "Tijean and Belle-sans-connaitre", all from Tales of the Night, 2011, conceived and produced by Michel Ocelot.]

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