A reworking of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The King and the Mockingbird was first conceived in 1947 as a joint project between poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert and animator Paul Grimault. Where in the original Dutch story the focus is on the romance between a shepherdess and a chimney sweep, Grimault and Prévert opted to democratize things a bit in their adaptation, so that the couple’s affair, while central to the film, never feels more important than the brief sequences given to the street peddlers, blind musicians, and industrial workers who populate the city’s lowest sphere. It’s a key move that complements the film’s satirization of dictatorships—or, for that matter, any system of coercion.
The film opens up in the kingdom of Tachycardia (think Venetian canals and Giorgio de Chirico paintings), ruled by a cross-eyed dictator whose recreational exploits are the subject of ridicule by the Mockingbird, a garrulous flâneur cut-out from a 19th-century salon. At night, the king’s paintings and sculptures come to life, none more passionately than the Shepherdess and the “good-for-nothing” Chimney Sweep. Their tryst is cut short by a newly painted and dismissed portrait of the king on the other side of the room, who steps out of his canvas and demands the Shepherdess’s hand in marriage. When they don’t oblige, the king’s doppelganger sounds the alarms and sets off on a wild goose chase. At his disposal is an entire brigade of small planes, boats, footmen, and a giant robot. If the combination between medieval motifs and the bevy of modern inventions sounds familiar, it should: Howl’s Moving Castle is one recent work that pulls off the same aesthetic to great effect.
In this way, the chase sequences certainly constitute much of the film’s joyful velocity. Comically long winding staircases and extending vistas provide ample running space for Grimault’s characters to flaunt their unique gait and rhythm. These same nuances resonate in the film’s quieter instances as well, where the focus is on more mundane side acts, be it a dog trotting down a flight of steps to free a caged bird or a security guard adjusting his glasses or some lions dawdling around in a prison dungeon. Mere punctuation though they may be, the cumulative effect is the kind of warm charm that Prévert’s verse is known for. All this occurs with a minimum of dialogue. Which is to say, if The King and the Mockingbird were to propose a mandate for animation, it would be what the medium’s etymology has long suggested: to make the inanimate full of life.
Despite The King and the Mockingbird’s political overtones, it wouldn’t be too academic to suggest that what’s most pleasurable in the work is to see the figures undulate as they move around within a space and toy with the frame’s linear perspective. Even Piero della Francesca would be proud of some of Grimault’s compositions, such as the king zipping through lengthy hallways in his throne-buggy, bouncing from background to foreground, unable, like all tyrants, to sit long enough to get a decent portrait done.