I’m not a parent. Nor do I play one on TV. This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t know what to do with a kid. I’m an uncle, after all, and I’ve been around children long enough to know that – when properly nurtured – their imaginations are boundless. Each holiday season at a workplace children’s event, I’m amazed at how quickly the boys and girls rush to the craft table for a chance to play and putter with glues, crayons, and stencils. They’ll rejoice in fashioning together the most modest gifts that they take home to give to mom or dad or a neighbor. As I watch, I can see how committed they are to building something, making it sparkle, and bringing it to life in their own unique ways. And I’m amazed at how many parents sit beside their children experiencing much the same.
After watching TALES OF THE NIGHT, I’d imagine director Michel Ocelot lives his life much the same way as those children, embracing his insatiable desire to weave fairy tales of magic, mayhem, and mystery for the fascination of children everywhere – young and old alike.
(NOTE: the following review may contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
TALES OF THE NIGHT is an anthology-of-sorts. Essentially, it’s a collection of several animated shorts blended into one complete product, and it’s all given the framework only a learned director like Ocelot could appreciate: the narrator is a man whose been told he’s much too old to be in motion pictures, and he pairs himself with two children who’ve been told they’re much too young. Together, they meet in an old movie theatre to explore their passion for making films. These aren’t just your regular run-of-the-mill features, mind you; together, they explore the stuff of dreams and nightmares to us all. For every prince, there’s a princess; and, for every princess, there’s a beast who must be bested even if that means slaying it or (would you believe?) understanding it.
For not every enemy is truly an enemy when one’s imagination is boundless. (And THAT’s the morale to this story!) Where else are you going to find a human sacrifice with a happy ending? Where else are you going to side with the werewolf instead of the villagers trying to wipe him out? Where else can a whimsical, carefree boy best a giant bee and a giant lizard and, yet, still dismiss the fanciful charms of the fair maiden? You say you want a talking horse, well what about a horse that sings? And don’t be so quick to shoo that foul bird away, little boy, because you never know what part of your happiness you might be denying! For every treachery, there’s a lesson to be learned, and Ocelot’s film should be celebrated in its own right for bringing class, majesty, magic, and (most importantly) MORALS to so humble a package.
Beyond the film’s narrative style, Ocelot tells these stories entirely in silhouette!
While the background and foreground can take any size or shape with bright, vivid colors, his characters appear only in black, instantly making them timeless in their own right. Unlike traditional animation, there’s no concentration on features except for the shape of these people; and, through the magic of invention, our three main characters – the old man and the two children – appear in several different ones with each subsequent tale. This stylistic choice alone could’ve been a disaster in the hands of a less accomplished director, but, in Ocelot’s hands, it lifts these short legends to new heights. You’ll never believe anyone could pack so much depth into so much blackness ever again.
TALES OF THE NIGHT is produced by Nord-Quest Productions, Studio O, StudioCanal, and Region Ile-de-France. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by New Video. As for the technical specifications, TALES consistently looks and sounds magnificent; no expense has been spared in the production of the disk. As there’s a minimalist-style of animation used throughout, sound is particularly important (and particularly terrific!). As for the special features, there are a few: there’s an 18-minute interview with Ocelot that I’d encourage anyone interested in film (and especially those interested in animation) to watch as he sprinkles the conversation liberally with storytelling philosophy that’s priceless; there’s a 10-minute segment titled “The Festival of Color: Storytelling Through Animation” that focuses on Ocelot’s work in securing worldwide rights for children; and, of course, the theatrical trailer. It’s a good assortment – not great – that I’ll hope gets expanded upon at some point in the future as TALES is nothing short of a delight from start to finish and deserves greater exploration. For the record, this is a French-language film with English sub-titles but there is an English-dubbed track (which I watched while English sub-titles were on to make certain the clarity was solid, which it is). Plus, it’s entirely family-friendly!
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. Stories with morals are so passé these days. They were big in the late 1950’s, and they certainly left their mark on American television of the 1960’s, but, as of late, they’ve dropped off. TV and video have become glorified babysitters instead of tools for inspiration. Personally, I believe that’s because everyone – parents, teachers, mentors, etc. – seems to have forgotten the importance of instilling lessons upon children that they can take with them on their journey through like. Fortunately, Michel Ocelot still spins yarns that’ll delight a child as well as give him something to think about.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at New Video provided me with an advance DVD screener of TALES OF THE NIGHT by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.