Lavishly praised and highly influential in Europe and Japan,
Paul Grimault’s The King and the Mockingbird
(also called The King and Mr. Bird, The King and the Bird and Mr. Wonderbird) has rarely been seen in the
United States due to rights issues. It opens this weekend, via Rialto Pictures, in a belated, limited
one of the oddest back stories in the history of animation. Paul Grimault was
already a highly respected director of short films when he started his first
feature in 1947, working with writer Jacques Prévert. The project began as an adaptation
of Han Christian Andersen’s “The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep,” a lesser-known
tale about two porcelain knick-knacks who learn the importance of remaining
where they belong. After three years of work, the production stalled and
Grimault’s partner André Sarrut decided to release the film—which was about 80%
complete–against the director’s wishes as La
Bergère et la Ramoneur (“The
Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep”). The truncated film was well-received,
winning a jury award at the XIIIe Biennale de Venise in 1952
Grimault spent nearly two decades regaining the rights to
the film, and another decade raising the money needed to complete it. He
released the finished film in 1980 as The
King and the Mockingbird. But Grimault’s
interest had shifted over the years, and the final film focuses on the
Mockingbird character, who began as a friend aiding Shepherdess and the Sweep.
This version opened to an even more favorable response, winning the Prix
Louis-Delluc in France and a Silver Bear at Moscow.
Thirty-five years later, The
King and the Mockingbird is a curious film that audiences accustomed to the
faster pacing and tighter structure of contemporary features will find alternately
intriguing and frustrating.
Charles, the foppish, cross-eyed monarch of an imaginary
country, enjoys hunting (although he can’t aim well enough to hit anything) and
commissioning images of himself (with his eyes correctly positioned). His
latest portrait falls for with the lovely Shepherdess in a painting in the
royal boudoir, although she loves the humble Chimney Sweep in the next canvas.
After the Shepherdess refuses a royal marriage proposal, the lovers escape from
their frames and wander through King’s labyrinthine palace.
The Mockingbird helps them escape from the outraged portrait
who commands an array of Keystone Kop guards and police. Living up to his name,
the Mockingbird derides the King’s vanity and frees some chicks from his
snares. At the climax of the film, he leads lions, tigers and dispossessed
people in a revolt against the King, seizing control of a giant robot that
recalls Tetsujin 28 (a.k.a. Gigantor) to pulverize the palace.
The King and the Mockingbird
is often lovely to look at, but hard to follow. Neither the Shepherdess nor the
Sweep display much personality, and Grimault clearly loses interest in them
halfway through the film. The often mute lovers are completely overshadowed by the
boldly garrulous Mockingbird.
The eclectic designs reveal the gaps in production time. The
complicated vistas of the seemingly endless palace are beautifully painted. But
the character designs seem rooted in the Fleischers’ cartoons of late 30’s/early
40’s: The King’s police officers look like they walked in from Gulliver’s Travels. The giant robot represents
a later, different design style doesn’t really fit the world of the palace.
The animation is similarly erratic. The artists clearly
worked very hard to give the King a mincing walk that reflects his shallow vanity.
The Shepherdess and the Sweep move through most of their scenes with a rather
balletic grace. But Mockingbird is animated in a broad cartoon style. He
“flies” by flapping the top half of his wings over his head.
With its rambling story, elaborate visuals–including
moving images of complex architectural elements that anticipate CG–The King and the Mockingbird may remind viewers
of Richard Williams’ The Thief and
Cobbler. Both films suffered from mutilation at the hands of others and
overly-long production times. Like Thief
and Cobbler, The King and the Mockingbird is an important film by a major
director that will intrigue students of animation. Whether general audiences
will embrace its singular vision remains to be seen.