From a distance, in simple description, Kirikou And The Sorceress has a lot in common with Disney’s fairy-tale classics. It’s an animated children’s film punctuated by songs. It’s an adaptation of a popular folk tale that smoothes over the hints of adult content, and adds in its own invented incident. It’s about a hopeful little dreamer who wants to get out and discover the world, in spite of the judgmental adults and received wisdom holding him back—a character meant for children to relate to. When he gets in trouble, his cute animal buddies help him out. Of course, he’s up against an evil, physically imposing witch with her own bevy of frightening minions. And like so many Disney fables, Kirikou ends abruptly in song and romance.
Except that in its actual specifics, Kirikou is nothing like a Disney story, and not just because of its cavalier attitude toward nudity, or because it features black characters who aren’t singers or servants. Where Disney polishes its stories into a familiar, smooth curve of narrative setup, rising action, setback, crescendo, and denouement, Kirikou is a narratively weird, lumpy little beast. Disney’s classic fairy-tale films were meant to go down easy, with their soft pastels, gentle lines, and comfortingly crooning songs. Kirikou’s rhythm is slower, jankier, and more staccato, from the opening moment, when the camera zooms in on an African village to the rhythmic sound of plucked strings and pounding drums, which blends with the sound of women pounding grain in a shared wooden bowl.
Writer-director Michel Ocelot, who spent years of his childhood in the African country of Guinea, drew on folk tales from the neighboring Senegal for Kirikou. His inspiration was a three-book collection of West African folk tales collected in the mid-1910s by colonial administrator François Equilbecq, who had an amateur anthropologist’s remove when it came to documenting folk fables like “The Marvelous Canary” and “The Miser And The Stranger,” and enthusing about the culture that spawned them. The Kirikou tales, as translated through Ocelot’s film, follow a newborn infant hero who’s ready for action even before he’s born: He shouts, from inside the womb, “Mother, bring me into the world!” In what quickly becomes a pattern, she shrugs off her astonishment and encourages him toward self-reliance by calmly answering, “A child who can speak from the inside of his mother can bring himself into the world.” So Kirikou crawls out, severs his own umbilical cord with his teeth, announces his name, and starts asking questions. Before long, he’s learned his village is in the thrall of a menacing sorceress named Karaba, and he runs off to find her and fight her.
This is the outsized, energetic tall-tale material of Davy Crockett (who supposedly killed a bear when he was 3 years old) and Paul Bunyan (who was so big as an infant, it took five storks to carry him to his mother). And Ocelot is openly channeling these kinds of folk-hero takes in his film. Kirikou feels like an unconventional story because it’s told in an unconventional way: It’s full of long pauses, repetitive narrative events, and languorous conversations. It’s broken up into miniature stories with little morals. Karaba isn’t a personality, like the many Disney witches who completely outshine their meek, milquetoast victims: She’s a simple force of nature, an impassable wall of menace and rage. And all this is because Kirikou And The Sorceress isn’t emulating a Disney version of a folk tale: It’s emulating actual folk tales.
The film is as episodic as a folk-tale collection. Kirikou wants to save his uncle from Karaba, so he finds a way through trickery. He wants to save the village children from Karaba, so he tries through wisdom, and then, when they won’t listen to him, through unlikely physical prowess. He decides to restore the village’s well, and confronts the monster that dried it up. He goes on a quest for the tools he needs to defeat the witch, and is rewarded with knowledge. And finally, he confronts Karaba. Each one of these chapters feels like a separate folk-hero tale in a common tradition, like Robin Hood or Br’er Rabbit stories, or the El-ahrairah adventures in Watership Down. And they’re told with the repetition and call-and-response dialogue sometimes seen in folk tales. When the newborn Kirikou asks his mother, “Mother! Where’s my father?” “Mother! Where are my father’s brothers?” “Mother! Where are my mother’s brothers?” and she gives him almost the same answer, in the same words, to each question, Ocelot isn’t stalling for time to drag out the film. He’s echoing the oral tradition of folk tales, where repetition and rhythm are meant to have a hypnotic effect on listeners—and help storytellers remember how the stories unfold.
Like so many fables, Kirikou also comes with its own morals, largely about not judging people by their appearance, not taking things for granted, and valuing intellectual curiosity over superstition, ignorance, and fear. When Kirikou starts investigating the witch, he asks everyone why she’s evil. And the adults don’t have an answer. “Does there have to be a reason?” his uncle asks. “Because she’s, um… because she’s a sorceress?” says the village’s self-important excuse for a wise man. Most of Kirikou’s success comes from the fact that he doesn’t take these evasions for answers, and he never stops asking questions until he gets to the truth. Like Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories or Aesop’s fables, the Kirikou stories are meant to be entertaining, while sneaking in messages about how to interpret the world.
What makes Kirikou And The Sorceress a fascinating movie to American eyes is that by emulating a collection of oral stories rather than the familiar cinematic forms such stories usually take on, Ocelot wound up producing something that doesn’t feel like anything in the American film tradition. Kirikou is an unlikely hero for American viewers because of all the reasons that make him an unlikely hero to the people around him: his tiny size, his inexplicable speed and strength, his unusual outspokenness and cleverness. But he’s also an oddball because he’s far more flawed than the typical cartoon hero. He’s arrogant and proud. He’s brash and impulsive, which often gets him into trouble. He’s a child who ignores the adults who tell him no—and is always right to do so.
And at times, he’s heartbreakingly vulnerable. Just like an actual kid, he periodically wears himself out with his ambition, finding the world too big and people too unwelcoming. He splashes disconsolately in the river shallows because the older kids won’t play with him. He talks sadly to his mother about how he keeps saving everyone but they still don’t much like him. He curls up in an underground tunnel to sleep because going on seems impossible. And when he meets his grandfather and forms a terrifyingly ambitious plan against Karaba, he crawls into the man’s lap for a moment of comfort. In these moments, he doesn’t read like a hero at all. He’s a small child, weary from his constant efforts to do the right thing instead of the easy thing.
On some level, Kirikou is every kid’s fantasy avatar. He’s stronger and faster and smarter than all the kids around him, and most of the adults. He’s sometimes scared and sometimes at a loss, but he never lets that stop him. His diminutive size is an advantage, letting him go places no one else can go, and do things no one else can do. He’s disobedient, cheeky, and demanding—and those things help him win the day. He has the world’s most permissive mother, a gentle soul who believes in him and never says no; she just stands back and gives him the information he needs to take the next steps along his path. And when he’s ready, he suddenly, instantly becomes a grownup, in the kind of random but pointedly symbolic logic that defines fairy tales.
Admittedly, like any fable, Kirikou And The Sorceress can be bald, broad, and obvious in those symbols, like the “thorn” some cruel men drive into Karaba’s body, leaving her traumatized, hurting, and angry. Or the way, in the final confrontation, the angry villagers stand and threaten Kirikou and Karaba from the shadows, but when his mother sedately moves forward to examine him, she steps across a sharp line and into the light. But that’s how fables work, by operating in broad strokes and finding new ways to tell familiar stories. Kirikou is a wonder because it’s such a familiar kind of story, told in such an unusual way.
Tomorrow, our Movie Of The Week Forum discussion of Kirikou And The Sorceress will delve into the film’s animation, music, influences, and curious sense of humor. And on Thursday, The Dissolve’s staffers will recommend other underrated animated favorites.