‘The King and the Mockingbird’: French masterpiece finally screening in the U.S.

Take a nostalgic trip back to the 1950s and watch a French masterpiece that gives nods to other masters–from painters to master story teller Hans Christian Andersen. “The King and the Mockingbird” is currently at the Laemmle, and kudos to them for finally bringing this animated feature to the U.S. via Rialto Pictures.

Begun in 1948, this traditionally animated French feature “The King and the Mockingbird” (“Le Roi et l’oiseau” or “The King and the Bird”) has only recently become available in English and that’s unfortunate because Japanese directors Hayao Miyazaki (“My Neighbor Totoro” and “The Wind Rises”) and Isao Takahata (“The Tale of Princess Kaguya”) consider this film a masterpiece and cited it as influential to their own work.

Although director Paul Grimault (23 March 1905-29 March 1994) began this feature film in 1948 with French poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert (4 February 1900-11 April 1977) the film was released without the approval of either man by the producer in 1952. Grimault was able to obtain the rights and complete the film three decades later and release it in 1980.

The film has gone under various English names and the 1952 version has Peter Ustinov narrating and voicing the role of the titular bird.

“The King of the Mockingbird” draws from a Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep” but enlarges it on to cityscapes inspired by surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico and director Fritz Lang (“Metropolis”). Prévert’s friend, Yves Tanguy’s paintings are also influential and you’ll even see a bit of Pointilism in a garden and not  a park that might remind you of Georges Seurat. Watch for men in black derby hats with their black umbrellas (right out of Rene Magritte) meet with Georges Remi (“The Adventures of Tintin”) and a group of men in black with fancy starched white ruffled collars (Rembrandt‘s “Syndics of the Drapers Guild”?).

There was no king in the Andersen story, but in this movie, the titular king is the self-involved Charles V + III = VIII + VIII = XVI who is the ruler of Takicardia. He has no friends and we never see his family. His servants live in fear of being sent to the dungeon. The king’s favorite pastimes are hunting and having portraits and statues done of himself.

Like many unskilled but wealthy hunters, he prefers canned hunts since he is cross-eyed and can’t hit a still target. One of his stray bullets did kill the wife of the Mockingbird. Yet the Mockingbird isn’t out for revenge. Instead, he saves his son from the canned hunt and becomes an ally to the young lovers attempting to escape from the king.

The young lovers are the Shepherdess and a Chimney Sweep. In Andersen’s tale they were ceramic figures and there was no king. Here, they are portraits on the wall next to each other. At night, they come to life as do the other art pieces. The real king is in love with the Shepherdess as is the king from the latest portrait. To escape the painting’s king, the two lovers slip away from their frames and run. The painting’s king first disposes of the real king and then takes his place in pursuit.

In their pursuit, they will meet a blind man who will save the Chimney Sweep from lions and the two lovers will have to face a great robot. Love will triumph but only after the king has been destroyed and other works of art have been referenced including the many portrayals of Daniel in the Lions den and Rodin’s “The Thinker.”

Unlike the toys in Disney’s “Toy Story,” the painted images once escaped from their frames becomes human and don’t have to return to their frames or become 2D or frozen when in the presence of humans and daylight has no effect on them. There is no feeling of calculated merchandising through cute characters ready to spring into plush creations (animaux en peluche). Miyazaki and Takahata felt this film was important enough to have the Studio Ghibli release it in Japan as King and Bird (王と鳥 Ō to tori)  in 2006. 

That means the United States is behind the times although the Ustinov version is now public domain and can be viewed for free. As always, I prefer the undubbed version and the de Chirico cityscapes do call for a large screen so don’t miss this opportunity to see a moving masterpiece of animation at the Laemmle. In French with English subtitles.






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