The King and the Mockingbird: The Surreal French Animated Film That Took 30 Years to Complete, and Profoundly Influenced Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata

Ani­ma­tion, as any­one who has ever tried their hand at it knows, takes a great deal of time. The King and the Mock­ing­bird (Le Roi et l’Oiseau), for exam­ple, required more than thir­ty years, a jour­ney length­ened by much more than just the labo­ri­ous­ness of bring­ing hand-drawn images to life. But it does that glo­ri­ous­ly, with a style and sen­si­bil­i­ty quite unlike any ani­mat­ed film made before or since — a sig­na­ture of its cre­ators, ani­ma­tor Paul Gri­mault and poet/screenwriter Jacques Prévert. Hav­ing already worked togeth­er on 1947’s Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen adap­ta­tion The Lit­tle Sol­dier (Le Petit sol­dat, not to be con­fused with the Godard pic­ture), they chose for their next col­lab­o­ra­tion to ani­mate Ander­sen’s sto­ry “The Shep­herdess and the Chim­ney Sweep.”

“The pompous King Charles, who hates his sub­jects and is equal­ly hat­ed in return, rules over the amus­ing­ly named land of Taki­car­dia,” writes crit­ic Christy Lemire. The most prized item in his art col­lec­tion is “his por­trait of a beau­ti­ful and inno­cent shep­herdess with whom he’s des­per­ate­ly in love. What he doesn’t know is that when he’s asleep, the shep­herdess and the chim­ney sweep in the adja­cent can­vas have been car­ry­ing on a sweet and ten­der affair.” Still King Charles keeps try­ing to win her, or steal her, for him­self, “but the cou­ple gets help thwart­ing him at every turn from the one char­ac­ter in the king­dom who does not wor­ship the monar­chy: the brash and trash-talk­ing Mr. Bird, a bright­ly-feath­ered racon­teur.” The film’s mood “shifts seam­less­ly from imp­ish, sil­ly adven­tures to grotesque and night­mar­ish suf­fer­ing. And then the giant robot arrives.”

This may sound ambi­tious, even for the only ani­mat­ed fea­ture in pro­duc­tion in Europe at the time. Alas, the com­pa­ny took Gri­mault and Prévert’s increas­ing­ly expen­sive project out of their hands after just a cou­ple of years, and in 1952 its pro­duc­er André Sar­rut sim­ply released it unfin­ished. (You can watch the now-pub­lic-domain Amer­i­can ver­sion of the film, dubbed by a cast head­ed by Peter Usti­nov and titled The Curi­ous Adven­tures of Mr. Won­der­bird, just above.) But Gri­mault and Prévert held fast to their vision, the lat­ter revis­ing the script until his death in 1977 and the for­mer, hav­ing won back the rights to the film, assem­bling a team of ani­ma­tors to pro­duce new scenes and cut out some of the old ones. This com­plete ver­sion of The King and the Mock­ing­bird had its French pre­miere in 1979, though it would­n’t reach Amer­i­ca until just a few years ago.

“I’m sure this all sounds famil­iar,” says Youtube ani­ma­tion video essay­ist Stevem in his analy­sis of The King and the Mock­ing­bird as a sur­re­al­ist film. “The pro­duc­tion was too ambi­tious, the com­pa­ny steps in and pulls it back, and in spite of its issues it’s remem­bered as a cult clas­sic, and inspired some of the big names along the way.” Those names include Stu­dio Ghi­b­li founders Hayao Miyaza­ki and Isao Taka­ha­ta. “We were formed by the films and film­mak­ers of the 1950s,” Miyaza­ki once said. “It was through watch­ing Le Roi et l’Oiseau by Paul Gri­mault that I under­stood how it was nec­es­sary to use space in a ver­ti­cal man­ner.” Taka­ha­ta saw Gri­mault as hav­ing “achieved bet­ter than any­one else a union between lit­er­a­ture and ani­ma­tion.”

Though Stu­dio Ghi­b­li’s fil­mog­ra­phy may offer plen­ty of mem­o­rably sur­re­al moments, The King and the Mock­ing­bird occu­pies a plane of ani­mat­ed sur­re­al­ism all its own. Draw­ing com­par­isons to Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture), Stevem quotes the line from Andre Bre­ton’s Sur­re­al­ist Man­i­festo about “the belief in the supe­ri­or real­i­ty of cer­tain forms of pre­vi­ous­ly neglect­ed asso­ci­a­tions, in the omnipo­tence of dream, in the dis­in­ter­est­ed play of thought.” That’s the sort of expe­ri­ence Gri­mault and Prévert’s film, in its fin­ished state, offers, while also, in the words of Vul­ture’s Bilge Ebiri, draw­ing on “Fritz Lang and per­haps the style of Walt Dis­ney from the great era of Snow White. There are inter­est­ing antic­i­pa­to­ry echoes, not just of ani­me, but Roald Dahl and the Vul­gar­ia of Chit­ty Chit­ty Bang Bang.” Just the sort of mix­ture only pos­si­ble — only even imag­in­able — in ani­ma­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take a Free Ani­ma­tion Course from a Renowned French Ani­ma­tion School

French Stu­dent Sets Inter­net on Fire with Ani­ma­tion Inspired by Moe­bius, Syd Mead & Hayao Miyaza­ki

Watch Moe­bius and Miyaza­ki, Two of the Most Imag­i­na­tive Artists, in Con­ver­sa­tion (2004)

Métal hurlant: The Huge­ly Influ­en­tial French Com­ic Mag­a­zine That Put Moe­bius on the Map & Changed Sci-Fi For­ev­er

Sal­vador Dalí & Walt Disney’s Short Ani­mat­ed Film, Des­ti­no, Set to the Music of Pink Floyd

David Lynch Presents the His­to­ry of Sur­re­al­ist Film (1987)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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