"The King and the Mockingbird" was released to acclaim in 1980 in France and has been cited as an influence on such renowned animators as Oscar winner Hayao Miyazaki, but rights issues had prevented the film from opening in the U.S. — until now.
The newly restored movie, which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, vividly illustrates the imagination and artistry of French animator Paul Grimault. After he and noted screenwriter Jacques Prévert collaborated on the acclaimed 1947 animated short "Le Petit Soldat," they set their sights on making France's first feature-length animated film.
Based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep," the hand-drawn "Mockingbird" revolves around a ruthless cross-eyed king who loves hunting but is anything but a crack shot. He's constantly mocked by a bird that serves as the film's narrator.
On the wall in the king's apartment is a painting of a beautiful shepherdess for whom he holds a secret crush. But she loves the chimney sweep in the next painting. When the paintings magically come to life at night, the couple flee, pursued by the king's painted doppelganger, who deposes the real king and takes his place.
During the making of the film, a dispute stopped production. The producer released an unfinished 62-minute version in 1952 called "The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep" without the permission of Grimault or Prévert.
It took Grimault about 10 years to get the rights back and a decade more to obtain the funding. Finally, in 1977, he began to work on an 87-minute version that he retitled "The King and the Mockingbird," so as not to be confused with the earlier release.
"We reworked half the film, but across very fragmented sequences, which required extremely meticulous work," Grimault said in a 1980 interview. The filmmaker died in 1994 at age 89.
Restoring the film was difficult, said Sophie Boyer, StudioCanal's head of restoration.
"It was very tricky because it was a mix of two movies," she said, adding that the material from the early version of the film was in "very bad shape."
The photochemical and digital restoration of the film and the restoration of the sound took place over two and a half years.
Alain Costa was 22 when he went to work on "The King and the Mockingbird," animating a baby mockingbird that escapes from its cage and a dancing clown who entertains the sleeping king.
Grimault, he said, wasn't bitter about the years-long struggle to complete the film as he and Prévert had originally envisioned.
"He removed the pieces that he didn't like from the first version and added new things to it," said Costa, who went on to be an animator on "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."
"When we did the new part, there was only a small team. A few of the people were working at home. I was working in the studio. I got to have lunch every day with Paul. Working with him was special."
Prévert never saw the completed film. He died in 1977 at age 77 while he was completing the final scene of "The King and the Mockingbird."
Grimault received an honorary César, France's equivalent to the Academy Award, in 1989.