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Director: Michel Ocelot
Broadcast Date:  1992
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Les Contes de la nuit’ (Tales of the Night) are three fairy tale films French animation master Michel Ocelot made for television, not to be confused with his feature film of the same name from 2011.

The three fairy tales are entirely original and are done in very elegant Lotte Reiniger-like cut-out animation, using black silhouettes only against handsomely colored backgrounds. Both the design and the animation are top notch throughout, making this mini-series a delight to watch.

La belle fille et le sorcier © Michel Ocelot‘La belle fille et le sorcier’ (Beauty and the Sorcerer) is first and shortest fairy tale of ‘ Les Contes de la nuit’ and features a fat ugly girl rescuing a wizard. Soon she’s turned into a handsome young lady… The film is more comical than the other two, and hard to take seriously.

 

 

La bergère qui danse © Michel Ocelot‘La bergère qui danse’ (The Dancing Shepherdess) is the second story of ‘Les Contes de la nuit’. This fairy tale features a powerful fairy queen in love with a young handsome shepherd. He, however, prefers his shepherdess. But then the fairy queen takes the shepherd to ‘the tower of sleep’, to sleep for a hundred years, and it’s up to the shepherdess to rescue him… This is a particularly attractive fairy tale, showing the power of hope and love.

 

Le prince des joyaux © Michel Ocelot‘Le prince des joyaux’ (The Jewel Prince) is the third and last tale of ‘Les Contes de la nuit’. This fairy tale again is entirely original, but looks like a story from 1,001 Arabian Nights. The plot is rather Aladdin-like, and features a boy in love with a princess, whom he wins by defeating an evil old man, who cheats on him. Like the other two this is a delightful little film, even if it is a little heavy on dialogue.

 

‘Les Contes de la nuit’ are available on the French DVD ‘Les trésors cachés de Michel Ocelot’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date:  1911
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Les exploits de Feu Follet © Émile Cohl‘Les exploits de Feu Follet’ is the first of only two surviving films Émile Cohl made for French film company Eclipse, the other being ‘Les métamorphoses comiques’.

With this film Cohl returned to the looks of his first films ‘Fantasmagorie‘ (1908) and ‘Le cauchemar de Fantoche‘ (1908): the film is shot in white on black and features a stickman. This stickman flies with a balloon to the moon and falls down into the ocean, where he is swallowed by a whale. Curiously, the whale, moon, and an eagle are drawn much more classically than the stickman, making ‘Les exploits de Feu Follet’ less consistent in its looks than either ‘Fantasmagorie’ or ‘Le cauchemar de Fantoche’.

Cohl’s timing is very sloppy in this film, and unfortunately there’s is little metamorphosis, with Cohl relying much on cut-out shortcuts. There’s practically no story, only a string of events. So, this film is not among Cohl’s best.

Watch ‘Les exploits de Feu Follet’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Les exploits de Feu Follet’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date:  1910
Rating: ★★
Review:

Rien n'est impossible à l'homme © Émile CohlÉmile Cohl was an extremely prolific animation artist, virtually responsible for almost the world’s complete animation output of 1908-1910. Thus it doesn’t come as a surprise that not all his films are masterpieces.

For example, ‘Rien n’est impossible à l’homme’ is a rather disjointed gag film about what man can do nowadays. The most interesting scene is the first one, in which we watch a live action street scene from above (supposedly from an airplane, but the camera remains static throughout). Other scenes use cut-out animation to show a diver smoking at the bottom of the sea, or a musician making an obelisk cry.

None of the gags are remotely funny, and the whole film feels like a garbage bag of unrelated gag material, making watching the short a rather tiresome experience.

Watch ‘Rien n’est impossible à l’homme’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Rien n’est impossible à l’homme’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date:  1910
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Monsieur de Crac © Émile Cohl‘Monsieur de Crac’ is a short animated gag film in which Mr. Crac (the French name for the Baron von Münchhausen) has some strange adventures, including his half horse drinking from a fountain. Most strange is Mr. Crac’s adventure inside the Etna, where he encounters a multitude of staring faces.

‘Monsieur de Crac’ is solely done in cut-out animation. Cohl’s drawing style often was old-fashioned, but in this film his drawings have a particularly 19th century feel, especially in Cohl’s neat and detailed background art. The drawings are reminiscent of the drawings of 19th century comic masters Wilhelm Busch and Rodolphe Töpffer, and they fit Rudolf Erich Raspe’s classic 1785 story very well.

‘Monsieur de Crac’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date:  June 21, 1910
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Les douze travaux d'Hercule © Émile Cohl‘Les douze travaux d’Hercule’ is a funny re-telling of the twelve labors of Hercules.

In Émile Cohl’s cut-out film Hercules is a rather fat man with quite a stupid look on his face, and the way in which he does the twelve labors is devoid of all realism. For example, every scene ends with hercules leaving the scene flying. Because of its comic character and silly animation, the film is quite entertaining.

The short even contains a novelty: in ‘la ceinture d’Hyppolyte’ Cohl suggests a fight between Hercules and the Amazones by showing 37 frames of pure abstract shapes, which are held for only 1 to 2 frames, giving the viewer an impression of a series of explosions. This comic device of abstract images suggesting a fight most probably had never been used on the animated screen before. But of course would be repeated in many cartoons after. The cut-out shapes are similar to those of artist Jean Arp, whose much more famous work is of a later date.

Watch ‘Les douze travaux d’Hercule ‘ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Les douze travaux d’Hercule ‘ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: 1910
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Le peintre néo-impressioniste © Émile Cohl‘Le peintre néo-impressioniste’ is a pure comedy film by cinema pioneer Émile Cohl.

This short is about a painter who cannot even draw a live model (his painting is that of a stick man). When a client arrives the talentless painter tries to sell his monochrome paintings to a client, exclaiming that they are all figurative. For example, the red painting involves a cardinal eating lobster at the red sea, and the green one shows a green devil playing billiards in the grass, while drinking absint.

The imaginary pictures are all shown in cut-out animation, and the colors are beautifully rendered by hand coloring. In the end the client buys them all, leaving the painter and his model laughing.

Watch ‘Le peintre néo-impressioniste’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Le peintre néo-impressioniste’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Sergei Ryabov
Release Date: February 20, 2007
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Tiny Fish © Soyuzmultfilm‘The Tiny Fish’ is a charming little children’s film with a winter setting.

We follow a little girl who encounters an evil fisherman catching a fish. Shocked by this event the girl stays at home, leaving it to other kids to play outside in the snow. She draws a picture of the fish and then dreams that she and the fish are attacked by a giant version of the fisherman, who grows bigger and bigger in size. With her paper fish the girl returns to the ice hole where the fish had been caught. She returns her paper fish to the water, which immediately comes to life.

‘The Tiny Fish’ is made with a virtuoso cut-out technique. The designs are soft and tender, if a little old-fashioned. The story is told without words, and with a great feel of atmosphere. The girl’s emotions are not shown all too explicitly, but one immediately feels with her. The magical transformation of the paper fish is in complete agreement with the child’s world of wonder.

Watch ‘The Tiny Fish’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Tiny Fish’ is available on the Belgian DVD ‘Kleine helden & rare kwasten – 14 animatiefilms voor kinderen’

Director: Berthold Bartosch
Production Date:
 1930-1932
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

L'idée © Berthold BartoschWhile the cartoon industry flourished in the United States, animation film was developed as an art form in Europe.

In the 1920s Germany had lead the way, with films by Lotte Reiniger, Walter Ruttman and Oskar Fischinger, but by the early 1930’s France had taken over, albeit almost exclusively by foreigners, with great films like ‘Le roman de Renard’ (1929-1930) by Russian animator Władysław Starewicz, ‘Une nuit sur le mont chauve‘ (1933) by his compatriot Alexandre Alexeïeff, ‘La joie de vivre’ (1934) by British artist Anthony Gross and American artist Hector Hoppin, and ‘L’idée’ (1930-1932) by Austro-Hungarian animator Berthold Bartosch (1893-1968).

‘L’idée’ was based on a wordless novel of the same name by Belgian woodcut-artist Frank Masereel (1889-1972), who initially co-operated on the film, until he discovered how laborious animating really was. Masereel’s groundbreaking work has a strong expressionistic quality, which is also very present in Bartosch’s film.

Both the international character and the mood of the wordless film are greatly enhanced by the beautiful musical score by Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, who used the whooping sounds of the Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument invented in 1928, to great effects. According to Wikipedia, this makes Honegger’s score for ‘L’idée’ the first film music to employ and electronic instrument.

The film tells how an idea can originate and grow, despite dejection, oppression and censorship by the establishment. In practice, Bartosch’s idea has a strong socialist character, becoming an idea of the working class, and being oppressed by clear capitalistic forces. The idea itself is presented as a naked woman, symbol of innocence and purity, and she grows, accompanying the people who become victim of the oppression to the very end. The emotional highlight of the film is when she visits the very person who had invented her the night before his death sentence.

Bartosch had previously worked on Lotte Reiniger’s films, and used her cut-out technique on Frank Masereel’s stark cut-outs to a great effect. The imagery of Bartosch’s film is much more poetic, however, than Masereel’s own work, with a lot of soft-focus, and milky effects, especially on the idea itself, which Bartosch created with the help of soap. The film is also noteworthy for its great sense of depth in some scenes, which can reach a stunning level of complexity. There is for example a scene showing crowds and cars passing by a window, and another with numbers of soldiers marching. Bartosch achieved this sense of depth with a multi-plane camera of his own design, using several glass plates below each other. It’s interesting to note that his device predated Disney’s multiplane camera by five years. True, these soap- and multiplane techniques at times blur the images too much, rendering them too murky to understand what’s happening on the screen, but mostly the film is an excellent example of expressionistic storytelling, and what animation can do.

Unfortunately, the film itself suffered from censorship, delaying its release, which often only happened with an altered, less provocative intro text, and Bartosch never gained any money from it. Nevertheless, it was released in 1934, creating a sensation in Europe, with exception, of course, of Nazi Germany, where it was banned. Bartosch’s second film, ‘Saint Francis: Dreams and Nightmares’ (1933-1938), apparently an anti-war film, was destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. After that Bartosch tried to work on a third film about the Cosmos, but because of his deteriorating health work was abandoned. He devoted the rest of his life to painting. Thus ‘L’idée’ sadly remains his only surviving film, but it’s a great testimony of Bartosch’s art, and without doubt it single-handedly places him in the pantheon of great animation film makers.

Watch ‘L’idée’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘L’idée’ is available on the Re:Voir DVD ‘Berthold Bartosch – l’idée’

Director: Yuri Norstein
Release Date: 1979
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Tale of Tales © SoyuzmultfilmIn ‘Tale of Tales’ we’re watching a wolf cub trying to survive his loneliness in an old house, relying on his memories.

These images are altered with images of a river scene with a.o. a fisherman, his wife and his children, and a giant Picasso-like minotaur skipping rope. Two other recurring images are that of dancing wives losing their men to war, and that of a little boy eating apples in the snow.

‘Tale of Tale’s is regarded as Yuri Norstein’s masterpiece and as one of the best animation films of all time. This does not mean it is the most accessible of all films, on the contrary. ‘Tale of Tales’ is a poetic film, but a confusing one. The nostalgic images seem unrelated, and are shown in a non-linear fashion. In fact, it is very difficult to render a ‘tale’ out of the images, which are intrinsically very strong, especially those of the melancholy wolf cub and of the iconic river scene.

Most of the film is made of muddy images in sepia-tones, rendering a dreamy atmosphere. Many images return, bridged by the wolf cub character, who, alone, seems to live in the present, outside of the images of a childhood long past. There’s some vague sense of a happy childhood being shattered by war and being lost in time.

The film uses no dialogue, and even the music is timid in its evocation of mood. Some of the cut-out animation is superb, however, and the overall imagery one of great virtuosity. The end result is as beautiful as it is overlong and frustratingly incomprehensible.

Watch ‘Tale of Tales’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Michel Ocelot
Release date: 1979
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Les trois inventeurs © Michel OcelotWith this animation film Michel Ocelot made his name in the world of animation.

In this film he uses elegant cut-out designs with a stunning virtuosity to evoke the gallant world of the late 18th century. The elaborate and graceful cut-outs recall the works by Lotte Reiniger from the 1920s, although Ocelot uses white laced paper on monochrome backgrounds, opposed to Reiniger’s black shapes.

The story is told with a little voice over, and a small amount of dialogue. The narrator introduces to us a family of inventors, a man, a woman and a little girl whose inventions (a balloon, a knitting machine and an automatic bird, respectively) are misunderstood and destroyed by the fearful, jealous and narrow-minded townspeople. When they try to show a steam engine to their neighbors, things go particularly awry.

True enough, the film suffers from bad sound designs and rather ugly harpsichord music. Yet, the film is not only beautiful to look at, Ocelot succeeds in evoking real emotions of disappointment, loss and fear. Its ending is disturbing enough, making it a true classic from the late 1970s. Indeed, the film won several prizes. Later, Ocelot would become an even greater voice in the animation world, especially with his feature film ‘Kirikou et la sorcière’ (1998).

Watch ‘Les trois inventeurs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Les trois inventeurs’ is available on the DVD ‘Les trésors cachés de Michel Ocelot’

Director: Hu Jinqing
Release Date: 1985
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Straw Man © Hu Jinqing‘The Straw Man’* is yet another example of China’s typical preoccupation with nature, water and fishermen.

Based on an ancient proverb (which one could translate into ‘it’s dogged as does it’), this film tells about a fisherman who is disturbed by two pelicans and who disguises himself as a scarecrow to catch the two birds.

The cut-out animation of the birds is very naturalistic, yet the backgrounds, based on paintings from the Tang dynasty, are are very graphical. Unfortunately, compared to the stunning animation of the animals, the animation of the fisherman is very crude and primitive, and the film suffers a little from a slow pace and all too present music.

Watch ‘The Straw Man’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Straw Man’ is available on the French DVD ‘Impression de montagne et d’eau’

* this film is also known by its French title: ‘l’épouvantail’

Director: Hu Jinqing
Release Date: 1983
Rating: ★★½
Review:

The Snipe and the Clam © Hu Jinqing‘The Snipe and the Clam’*  is one of many Chinese films based on ancient tales.

And like many other Chines films it has a look based on ancient Chinese paintings, it’s set in nature, and it deals with a fisherman.

In this film, a fisherman, a kingfisher and a snipe try to open a giant clam. When the snipe gets stuck, it’s the fisherman who wins the day. The film is based on an ancient Chinese proverb, which can be translated into “two dogs fight for a bone, and a third one runs away with it”.

In ”The Snipe and the Clam’ Hu Jinqing excels in gorgeous watercolor backgrounds, beautiful designs, great silent acting and remarkably naturalistic cut out-animation of the animals. In comparison, the animation of the fisherman is simple and rather crude. The film unfolds at an unhurried, almost meditative speed, which can make it difficult to enjoy.

Watch ‘The Snipe and the Clam’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Snipe and the Clam’ is available on the French DVD ‘Impression de montagne et d’eau’

* this film is also known as ‘Snipe-Clam Grapple’, and by its French title: ‘l’aigrette et j’huitre’

Director: Ivan Ivanov-Vano
Release Date: 1972
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Ave Maria © Soyuzmultfilm‘Ave Maria’ is a very grim anti-Vietnam film, made in the Soviet Union.

It combines paintings of the Virgin Mary with images of war. Its darkest moment is when a soldier in a gas mask kills a Vietnamese child. The film ends with live action footage of people protesting against the Vietnam war. Clever montage suggests that the protesters are being repressed.

Despite its disturbing character the film is too blatantly propagandastic and too directionless to be a classic. It also uses little animation.

Watch ‘Ave Maria’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Ave Maria’ is available on the DVD box set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’

Director: Jiří Trnka
Release Date: 1951
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Merry Circus © Jiri Trnka‘The Merry Circus’, is puppet-animator Trnka’s try at cut-out animation.

The film shows that Trnka was a master in this technique as well: the animation is superb: the sense of weight, muscular tensions and balance is nothing less than stunning. Moreover, the cut-outs seem to float in mid-air, casting wonderful shadows on the background.

Unfortunately, the film’s subject is not that interesting. We watch circus artists perform, among them two sea lions juggling, a girl on a horse, three trapeze acrobats and an acrobat bear balancing on a chair on a bottle on a glass. Even though some of the shown tricks are quite improbable, the only truly surrealistic act is the fish on the slack-rope.

Despite the lack of story, the film is an enjoyable watch: its visual design is beautiful and poetic, its animation fluent and convincing, and its circus atmosphere well-captured. ‘The Merry Circus’ may not be Trnka’s best film, but it’s only the high quality of some of his other films that makes this one second-rate.

Watch ‘The Merry Circus’ yourself and tell me what you think:

http://veehd.com/video/4587370_Jiri-Trnka-The-Merry-Circus-Vesely-Cirkus-1951

Director: René Laloux
Release Date: May 11, 1973
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

La planète Sauvage © René Laloux
‘La planète sauvage’ is an old love of mine. I first watched it when I was ca. six or seven. It took me fifteen years before I learned which film I had actually watched, and it would take me another ten years before I could watch it again. However, all the time the film’s powerful images never left me.

‘La planète sauvage’ is a science-fiction feature, which tells about the life of humans (‘Oms’, which sounds like the french word for humans, ‘hommes’) on a strange planet occupied by story-block-high humanoid giants, called Draags. To them humans are no more than pets and pests. By accident, a pet Om, Terr (symbolically named after the French word for Earth, terre), learns the Draags’ knowledge and he leads his fellow humans into an uprising.

However, ‘La planète sauvage’ is not particularly famous for its straightforward and rather cliche plot. Its strength lies in its effective use of Roland Topor’s very surrealistic designs, which makes the depicted planet incomprehensible, foreign and scary. For example, the Draag’s behavior is so strange, that despite their humanoid form they feel very alien, indeed. The film’s original technique of combining drawn animation with cut-out adds to the surreal atmosphere. Even the space funk music accompanying the action sounds outlandish.

Even though the animation sometimes is rather stiff and at times even ridiculously poor, the graphic imaginary is so strong that these shortcomings never spoil the enjoyment of the film. On the contrary, the film’s totally unique and disturbing atmosphere and its philosophical questions about what makes man human make watching ‘La planète sauvage’ a very rewarding experience.

Together with Bruno Bozzetto’s ‘Allegro non troppo’ (1976) and Martin Rosen’s ‘Watership Down’ (1978) Laloux’s film must be counted among the most outstanding features of the seventies. René Laloux would make two other science fiction features, ‘Les maîtres du temps‘ (1981) and ‘Gandahar‘ (1988), but these do not reach the stunning originality of the visuals in this film.

Watch the trailer for ‘La Planète sauvage’:

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1966
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Et Cetera © Jan SvankmajerIn ‘Et Cetera’ three faceless human figures demonstrate repetitive and aimless actions.

The first shows how to fly with wings, only to reach his own starting point. The second transforms himself into the animal he’s training using a whip, and the third keeps on drawing houses he cannot enter or leave.

Unlike most of Jan Švankmajer’s films, ‘Et Cetera’ uses 2d animation. It’s a clever and somehow saddening film: although the three little stories are extremely simple, they seem to tell something about the condition humaine. ‘Et Cetera’ uses great electronic music, which adds to the surrealistic atmosphere.

Watch ‘Et Cetera’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Et Cetera’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

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