Le Roi et l'oiseau is widely considered a masterpiece of animation. Two things brought me to it. The first was reading about Norstein's The Overcoat, with its 20-year production time, which led to mentions of this film being in production from 1948-1980 - the project began when the studio Les Gémeaux was in a strong position, having been the only animation studio operating in occupied France during WWII, but stalled when they hit financial difficulties in 1950, with an unfinished version being released in 1952; a rights dispute ensued, stretching into the 70s, and then finally the film was finished from 1977 onwards. The second was, as with The Old Man and the Sea, the recommendations of Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki and Takahata having highly praised this animation as a great influence on them and released it in Japan as part of their Ghibli Museum Library collection.
It is a very strange, rather hallucinogenic film. It may be regarded as a classic, but there is a lot about it that is slapdash or defied explanation. On the other hand, there are also moments of great visual ingenuity, some genuinely hilarious humour and a very interesting meld of animation styles testament to the two very different periods in which it was made.
In the kingdom of Tachycardia, decadent King Charles (V+III=VIII)+VIII=XVI enjoys commissioning images in his likeness, while warring with a large bird who has his nest in the towers of his castle. The King managed to hunt and kill the bird’s wife, leaving him the single parent of four adorable chicks, but in return the sardonic bird torments him about his ugly cross-eyed face. One day the king commissions a new painting, dropping the unfortunate painter into a pit for making him cross-eyed and himself retouching it with nice normal eyes. For some reason, the works of art in the king’s bedroom come to life at night, including images of a chimneysweep and a shepherdess: here the story with its basis in Andersen comes to the fore, and these two paintings become the sympathetic lead characters of the film. They escape from their frames, but the painting of the king believes that the shepherdess ought to marry him so pursues them, on the way dropping the real king down one of his traps and taking his place. The couple evade capture for a time, with the help of the bird, until they descend to the lower city, right out of Metropolis. Here, apparently the king doesn’t care what damage he does, so he uses a giant robot to capture the heroes. The shepherdess is prepared for marriage while the sweep and the bird are forced into labour. Rebelling, they are thrown to the lions, but the bird and a blind organ-grinder from the lower city convince the lions to burst free and overcome the forces of the false king. All that remains is a climactic battle for the giant robot, and a final scene that may be quite an abrupt end to the film – but is one of its most iconic and memorable pieces of imagery.
Visually, the film recalls nothing so much as Disney and Fleischer shorts from the 20s and 30s. Many frames have been drawn, given great fluidity to every movement, but the characters move almost without weight, and their movements have odd, jerky timing or can be hard to interpret. The identical policemen in particular have expressions right out of black-and-white Mickey Mouse and those little chicks have more than a little of Snow White’s fauna in them. Meanwhile, the king’s strange, languid movements are superbly idiosyncratic, and the bird himself has some wonderful moments. It’s sometimes possible to notice the jump from 40s to 70s in a single cut, but overall the film is remarkably coherent.
There is much that will stay with me forever. Some brilliant visual gags are on display, mostly surreal: in one scene that really made me laugh, the King has to open a series of traps to catch out his chief of police, and then unexpectedly zips off when his throne is converted into a bumpercar. The appearance of the chimneysweep surprised me, an extremely feminine boy I wouldn’t think would meet any ideals as a romantic lead in either the 40s or the 70s. And one scene, in which what appears to be a concertina with eyes and feet comes along, does a dance, and then is ignored and forgotten. I really cannot make sense of that sequence at all. I can accept that the king and guards might just be persuaded not to investigate a statue made of birds even if it was awkward, but that concertina really bewilders me.
There are numerous little curios here. What do those allusions to Hitler really signify? Why gondolas? Should the concept of the painting replacing the real king not have been given more recognition? But ultimately this is a freewheeling, rather bizarre animated fantasy, and somehow it feels like it would be fruitless to question it.