Marvelously colorful, casually inventive and completely wacky, "The King and the Mockingbird" just might be the best animated film of the year. Though it's making its American debut in 2014, this French film is a treasure that took decades to reach the screen and even more years to finally get to this country.
Based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep" and playing a bit like a demented feature from Disney's golden age, "Mockingbird" got its start in the late 1940s as a collaboration between co-screenwriter Jacques Prévert and writer-director Paul Grimault.
Prévert was one of France's top writers, director Marcel Carné's collaborator on films like "Children of Paradise," "Port of Shadows" and "Le Jour se Lève," while no less than Japan's masterful Hayao Miyazaki has said that "the filmmaker who most influenced me was the French animator Paul Grimault."
Despite this impressive pedigree, the filmmakers ran afoul of producers who took the work away from them and released it in 1953 in a version the creative team denounced.
It took Grimault 13 years to regain the rights and the negatives, and a dozen more to finish the film (which won the prestigious Prix Louis-Delluc when it opened in France in 1979) to his satisfaction, and decades longer to clear up rights conflicts and free his version to be shown in this country.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about "Mockingbird" is how fresh and even contemporary it feels despite its considerable age. Playful both visually and verbally, it's got Gallic attitude to burn, as well as a setting that is as wild and crazy as it gets.
That would be the mythical kingdom of Tachycardia, ruled by a despotic monarch with a terribly long name: Charles V plus III equals VIII plus VIII equals XVI (voiced by Pascal Mazzotti.)
"Everyone detested him," we are told, "and he detested everyone right back."
Charles lives in a dizzyingly elaborate palace so extensive it could be a country all by itself. When he takes his private elevator to his secret apartment on the 296th floor, a disembodied voice tells us what's on each level as if the palace were some crazed department store.
The great thorn in the king's side is an elaborately colored mockingbird with a massive wingspan. As written by Prévert and voiced by Jean Martin (who later had a key role in "The Battle of Algiers"), the mockingbird is a creature with an expansive personality and a wonderfully expressive way of speaking French.
The king, though a terrible shot, loves to hunt. He's always trying to shoot the mockingbird and his four offspring, and the bird continually gives the king a hard time for trying.
Things get seriously crazy when the monarch retires to his private painting-filled apartment. While the king sleeps, a painted version of the king gets rid of him and declares his intention of marrying the fetching shepherdess in an adjoining mural, ignoring the fact that the woman in question is in love with the chimney sweep one painting over.
The shepherdess and the sweep escape their paintings and try to flee the palace, helped by the mockingbird, which has complete contempt for the king and never shirks from hostile action, no matter what the consequences.
This is the merest outline of a film that includes an assembly line manufacturing royal heads, ravenous lions that just happen to be serious music lovers, and an enormous robot that prefigures the creature in Brad Bird's "Iron Giant." Don't bother figuring it out; just sit back and enjoy the show.
'The King and the Mockingbird'
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes