You could easily be forgiven for having never heard of the 1980 animated French movie The King and the Mockingbird. However it’s had a profound effect, not least that Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata have said it helped show them what animation could be, with the lessons they learned from it helping fuel the creation of Studio Ghibli.
Director Paul Grimault and screenwriter/poet Jacques Prevert started work on the film in 1947, when it was planned it as France’s first animated movie. However production was stopped partway through due to a dispute (an unfinished version that wasn’t approved by the director or writer was released at the time). After endless funding and rights battles it took another 30 years to finish it in the way Grimault and Prevert envisioned it. However it was worth the wait.
The movie is very loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep. The King and the Mockingbird is set in a land ruled over by a pompous and tyrannical King who lives at the top of an enormous castle. In his private apartments are portraits of a Shepherdess and a Chimney Sweep. They have fallen in love but as they are paintings there’s not much they think they can do about it. The King also has feelings for the Shepherdess – as does his portrait.
At night the paintings come to life and the Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep decide to escape. The King’s portrait meanwhile is also alive, and locks up the real king so he can take his place. He then orders the capture of the Chimney Sweep and his beloved Shepherdess. As the lovers make their way down the many layers of the castle they face all sorts of obstacles, but they get help from a bird who likes to do nothing more mock the king.
However while the mechanics of the plot follow the two escaping lovers, as the title suggests it is the cruel king and pomposity pricking bird who are the most important characters.
The King and the Mockingbird is an utterly bizarre movie and yet one that’s almost breath-taking in its imagination. It’s strange and weird and yet it makes sense in its own little world. With endless invention and a huge amount of wit, it’s a wonderful film that is as entertaining for kids as it for adults. Indeed grown-ups will appreciate that there’s more going on here than just silly fun, as the King’s castle works as sharp critique of a bureaucratic class system.
This DVD includes a new restoration, although it’s noticeable that some shots are far cleaner and less noisy than others. I’m presuming the reason is that some of it was animated in the 1940s and some in the 1970s. It’s not a problem but it is noticeable.
There’s also both the original French audio and the English dub, although if you’re watching it with a kid, it’s worth noting that if you just press play you’ll get it in French. But whatever language you choose it’s definitely worth watching and I can certainly see why it inspired the likes of Miyazaki and others.
Overall Verdict: It’s an animation great you may never have heard of, but The King and the Mockingbird deserves it reputation as a wonderfully enjoyable movie with a truly incredible sense of creativity.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac