Le Roi et l’Oiseau

March 27, 2008

(AKA “The King & the Bird.” Sounds dull translated, but it’s better than the alternate English title “The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird.”)

Hayao Miyazaki has exquisite taste. He loves Yuri Norstein and Frédéric Back, and most of all, Paul Grimault. This greatest of French animators, fearing neither sentiment nor destruction, left his traces all over The Castle in the Sky. In Grimault’s earlier film Le Roi et l’Oiseau, the castle doesn’t fly, but the Bird does. And the lovers seem to, drawn with such a light touch. As though Bob Clampett had flown to Paris for Jean Cocteau’s poetry, one could say.


Grimault actually preferred Jacques Prévert’s poetry, or at least his screenplays. The writer of Children of Paradise collaborated with Grimault on l’Oiseau‘s scenario for some 25 years. It should have been less: the original producer fired them in 1950, releasing their film three years later. Called La Bergère et le Ramoneur, only parts reflected their vision. Eventually, Grimault recovered the rights and the negative. He and Prévert reworked the screenplay and threw out a third of the negative. In 1980, their completed film appeared, half old, half new.

The film feels like an artifact from an alternate history. The animation has the texture and bounce of 1930s Looney Tunes, but the mise en scène of a live action spectacle. The characters, from the boisterous Bird to the vain, cross-eyed King, fly, run, and crawl through a towering cityscape. The camera looks down and up, it counterpoints the action and tilts against the triumphal pitch of the architecture. Grimault anticipates the innovation of anime, trading a character’s stagebound performance for visual depth.

The story, too, has some depth. Ever schematic, it pits the King against the Bird, who doubles as royal heckler. When the King retires to his secret chamber (borrowed by Miyazaki in The Castle of Cagliostro), he gazes at a painting of a shepherdess. He loves her; she’s a painting. That night, she comes to life with her lover, the chimney-sweep. So does a painting of the King, who disposes of his real self and mobilizes the whole city against them. The Bird, a friend of love and the oppressed, helps them with humor and cunning. The chase goes from the castle’s top to the lower depths, and ends, as do all love stories, with a forced marriage, fisticuffs, and near complete destruction.


Unlike Clampett and Miyazaki, Grimault proudly displays a self-conscious lyricism. For example, a key scene finds a blind poet in the lower depths. The fleeing lovers meet him; he asks about the sun. They assure him it exists, so he cranks up the hurdy-gurdy. Then a giant robot attacks. Later, he winds up in a lion’s den. These touches, made hilarious and bittersweet with such jokes, exemplify the film’s unique pleasures. It shares much with the cinema of René Clair and Marcel Carné, even certain of Jean Renoir’s films (Boudu, perhaps). Yet it is rooted in cartoon gags. The best example has the chimneysweep and the bird captured and forced to paint the King’s face, on an assembly line like poor animators. Quickly bored, they vandalize every one, giving the vain fool what he deserves.


Grimault claimed he wanted not realism, but reality. In other words, characters that seemed to live beyond the film. It is a rare trick, one suited to cartooning. Would that Grimault had more chances to perform it, so that Le Roi et l’Oiseau would not seem such a unique contribution to animation history.


Apart from awful YouTube scraps, the movie’s a pain to see; I have not found an English version. I have one of two Japanese DVDs, in French with Japanese subs; my poor French made it through. Studio Ghibli released another DVD I’m kicking myself over, as it includes most (all?) of his short films. Meanwhile, a French DVD exists and may have infiltrated Canada too. I believe most VHS tapes have the aforementioned “Mr. Wonderbird” dub, which, like the bread, should be feared. Fortunately, the storytelling’s so crisp one could watch without the language, as I did years ago with a faded copy of Castle in the Sky, over and over again.

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