The Monk and the Fish, the Classic Animation by Michael Dudok de Wit

Edi­tor’s note: The text below dis­cuss­es the end­ing of the film. We rec­om­mend that you watch “The Monk and the Fish” before read­ing.

In this charm­ing and visu­al­ly ele­gant film from 1994, the Dutch-born ani­ma­tor Michael Dudok de Wit tells the sto­ry of a sin­gle-mind­ed monk and a very elu­sive fish. While the set­ting and sym­bols are Chris­t­ian, the sto­ry pro­gres­sion is essen­tial­ly Bud­dhist.

The Monk and the Fish is not a sto­ry about the solu­tion of a con­flict,” Dudok de Wit explained to Sarah Moli­noff in a 2009 inter­view for the Oxon­ian Review. “It’s more about the rise above the con­flict, the rise above dual­i­ty.” The monk does­n’t catch the fish; he and the fish are unit­ed. Dudok de Wit took his inspi­ra­tion from the Ten Ox Herd­ing Pic­tures, a series of Zen poems and images from 12th Cen­tu­ry Chi­na, which illus­trate the jour­ney to enlight­en­ment through the sto­ry of an oxherd’s strug­gle with a way­ward bull. He said:

The gen­e­sis of the film was the end­ing. It was that sequence I want­ed to cre­ate, where there is a serene union between the monk and the fish. The end­ing by itself would be flat, too abstract, to pull the audi­ence in, so I clear­ly need­ed to have a build-up, to estab­lish and feel empa­thy with the char­ac­ter. In con­trast to the end­ing, in the begin­ning the monk is obsessed, obsessed, obsessed, but in the end­ing he arrives at a res­o­lu­tion. In a qui­et way, not with a big act.

The Lon­don-based artist hand-paint­ed each frame in ink and water­col­or. Like the sto­ry, the visu­al style was inspired by the Far East. “The Japan­ese in par­tic­u­lar, and also the Chi­nese and Kore­ans,” said Dudok de Wit, “have a way of using neg­a­tive space, of not fill­ing the pic­ture, which is very typ­i­cal of the Far East and very untyp­i­cal of the West. We can be inspired by it, but it’s pro­found­ly in their culture–in their genes maybe, and not so much in ours. It’s not just about the brush line, it’s also the space around the line that is inspir­ing.”

For the music, Dudok de Wit chose a clas­sic from the West­ern canon, La Folia, a tra­di­tion­al theme that was often adapt­ed or quot­ed by com­posers like Bach, Vival­di, Corel­li, Han­del and Liszt. The film­mak­er select­ed a few of his favorite variations–mainly from Corel­li and Vivaldi–and asked com­pos­er Serge Bes­set to lis­ten to them and cre­ate a new ver­sion to fit the film.

The Monk and the Fish took six months to cre­ate, and was nom­i­nat­ed for Best Short Ani­mat­ed Film at both the Acad­e­my Awards and the British Acad­e­my Film Awards. You will find it list­ed in our col­lec­tion of 450 Free Movies Online, along with anoth­er mov­ing short by Dudock de Wit, Father and Daugh­ter. They appear in the Ani­ma­tion Sec­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Shel Sil­ver­stein’s The Giv­ing Tree: The Ani­mat­ed Movie


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