Michel Ocelot’s recent cartoons cleverly advance Lotte Reiniger’s prototypical stop-motion technique—whereby silhouette figures perform before pellucid, lantern-lit backgrounds—into the digital age. Even the endearingly awkward movements of Reiniger’s hand-made (and hand-moved) characters are replicated with equally graceless tweening effects. At their most effective, Ocelot’s child-aimed television programs collapse the philosophical distance between CGI graphics and their more clumsily physical antecedents, rarefying the art of animation into a celebration of two-dimensional kineticism. The silhouette aesthetic, wherein empty, darkened profiles interact with smartingly bright landscapes, likewise evokes and simplifies the manner in which mankind has been humiliated by his environment throughout his struggle toward civilization.
In other words, Ocelot’s visual style is perfectly suited to the arbitrary cosmic-ness of the myths it illustrates, as Reiniger’s was. And the distinctions in value between his largely interchangeable films are mostly a matter of whether you prefer your fairy tales occidental or oriental, solemn or satirical. Perhaps anticipating this, Tales of the Night features five different vignettes drawn from a fantasy series Ocelot produced for French television. The blend of material isn’t dramatically varied in tone, but occasionally a flippancy emerges that marks a departure from the director’s earlier multicultural earnestness and naïveté.
In one story, a boy from a Caribbean slum mistakenly enters the underworld, where he’s forced by a Plutonian lord to undertake three intensely difficult tasks. (These aren’t unlike the Labors of Heracles, which were intended as semantically improved death sentences.) After completing the errands with the help of an unlikely Franco-phonic iguana, the boy is offered the underworld to rule, along with the usual dynastic and marital perks, at which point he rejects the boon and high-tails it back to the land of the living. This reversal of spirit wouldn’t be out of place among the seemingly irrelevant denouements to many of the Grimm brothers’ stories, several of which appear to contradict the very morals the narratives claim to embody. But as a flourish of common sense it breaks the chilly, reverentially gnostic spell cast by other tales in the film, such as a scenario where a lovesick shepherd is forced to sustain his moribund girlfriend with the vital organs of his beloved talking horse.
That we’re shown the horse’s silhouetted heart steaming in a wooden bowl suggests the folklorish frankness that Ocelot is after in spite of some merely “cute” moments. Though even these are not without merit: The porcupine that rises on its hind legs to dance a jig to the beat of an enchanted tom-tom is irresistibly drawn. This mix of preciousness and morbidity associates the film less with the seldom-visceral Reiniger and more with modern fairy tale-skewerers like Jan Svankmajer or Jim Henson, whose Storyteller series seems a near-cousin to Ocelot’s work: Several transitional sequences in the sinisterly comic Storyteller even had silhouettes acting in front of chroma-keyed video images.
But while Ocelot’s plots aren’t afraid to get gnarly and wicked, Tales of the Night‘s design is never less than rigid; shapes are often reduced to the point of rudimentary geometry and filled in with sloppily solid, if piercing, colors. Simplicity of this sort works less well here than it did for Reiniger, whose physical methodology provided a textural piquancy that computer art can’t properly mimic. Despite the shapely 3D photography at work, there’s a flatness to the Photoshop-brushed backdrops that might have been improved by subtler hues. Still, what Ocelot has that Reiniger didn’t have is the complete freedom to visualize by way of a suite of Apple programs. That he’s exercising this freedom to toy with such basic shapes, colors, and stories so successfully suggests that animation might be at its best while at its most seemingly primitive.