Tasha: What always strikes me most about re-watching Kirikou And The Sorceress is the bluntness of the storytelling, from the heavily symbolic characters (mother = nurturing, grandfather = wisdom, fat lady = selfishness, children = short-sightedness, old man = foolishness) to the clipped, direct dialogue. The protagonist’s line “I am Kirikou, and I know what I want!” sums it up: This is a story rich in metaphor and incident, but not in flowery language or subtle shades of meaning. Part of that simplicity comes from an effort to make it accessible to kids. I re-watched parts of it in the original French, which is equally simple and accessible—I haven’t studied French since college, and even I can parse sentences like “Karaba la sorcière! Pourquoi es tu méchant?” Part of it likely comes from the source material, a series of West African folk tales, which presumably have the usual folktale spareness because they’re designed to be passed orally from generation to generation. But some of it, I’m convinced, is for humor value, and some is just to bring across Kirikou’s innocence. As a child (more accurately, a newborn infant), he doesn’t have illusions about the world, or any reason to conceal his true intentions. He says what he thinks, and it’s a virtue—both because it gets him answers and reactions, and because it moves the story along right quick.
Noel: One effect this bluntness has is that it takes a children’s movie full of naked people—one that ends with the villain kissing a baby and making him her husband—and makes it seem not even a little bit inappropriate. I have no idea whether Ocelot did this intentionally. (Perhaps not, since his culture doesn’t have the same deep prudery as ours.) Regardless, Kirikou And The Sorceress is so matter-of-fact that everything that happens within it seems inevitable. And that matters, because one of the points of the story is that the solutions to all of this village’s problems were there long before Kirikou found them. There really isn’t that big a boundary between “this is how things are” and “this is how things should be.” All it takes to make everything all right is a baby with vision.
Matt: The film’s bluntness matches Kirikou’s bluntness very nicely. Kirikou doesn’t overthink anything; he sets his sights on a goal and charges straight at it. When he finds a way to restore the village’s water supply, he doesn’t really weigh the potential cost to himself, he just does it and deals with the ramifications when they come. Ocelot’s approach is similarly matter-of-fact, in a charming way. The film is just 72 minutes long, and doesn’t much dwell on any one thing. I found that youthful energy and pacing really infectious.
Nathan: We never have to guess what’s on Kirikou’s mind, or what he’s after at any given moment, because he comes right out and says it, as plainly and forcefully as possible. Yet that bluntness is at the service of a sort of surrealistic dream logic. That makes it easier to accept, without overintellectualizing, or overanalyzing, a world where the hero ages decades in a heartbeat, and goes from being the Sorceress’ nemesis to her partner. As in a dream, we just go with it.
Keith: I largely agree, but I have to confess that it takes a moment to get used to the approach, one where everything’s on the surface, and the dialogue spells out exactly what everyone else is thinking at any given point. But once you slip into the mindset of a children’s book—and I think this film plays best as an elaborate, if nudity-filled, story for children—it gets easier.
FOLKLORE AND FAIRY TALES
Keith: Connected to the simplicity of its language: Kirikou And The Sorceress weaves together different different West African folk tales, which require direct, easily remembered and easily repeated language, no matter how complex their themes. I’m not sure how faithfully Ocelot adapts his sources, but I would guess fairly faithfully. Some moments that feel toned down—the event that turns the sorceress evil is pretty obviously a metaphor for a rape, even though it isn’t explicitly depicted as such—but mostly, the stories play to my modern eyes as retaining the essential oddness of a tale that uses elements particular to its culture to explore universal truths: Sometimes the young are wiser than the old, sometimes the wrongs of the past get visited on the next generation, peace comes from recognizing what we have in common rather than emphasizing divisions. Animation is just another way to tell those stories, and the film feels like it’s staying true to both its inspiration and its medium, even if the two sometimes make odd bedfellows. We’re accustomed, after all, to seeing cartoon kids learning lessons and being taught to play by the rules, not finding success through disobedience, then turning into hunky warriors.
Tasha: I put a lot of effort into trying to track down the original stories, because I’m curious how much Ocelot changed them for the screen, but very little information is available about them, since he encountered them in a turn-of-the-century French collection that hasn’t been translated or reprinted. One of the few things I did run across was a student essay citing a professor who had tracked down the original stories and confirmed that, yes, Karaba was gang-raped in the original version, and that’s what left her in pain and hating all humanity. Given that we come from a culture steeped in European fairy tales, which usually sublimate sexual threat into violence—and then, in the bowdlerized versions, sublimate the violence as well—it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around a fairy-tale villain whose origin story is PTSD and rape trauma. But I do think Ocelot does an admirable job of suggesting what happened in a way that parents will understand, while simultaneously turning Karaba’s story into a kid-accessible, generalized fairy-tale teaching metaphor for the way painful events stick with us, form us, and continue to hurt us, unless we figure out a way to let them go.
Noel: I had some cool teachers in elementary school who were big into folklore and the oral tradition, and would gather us in the library to tell stories they’d memorized, rather than just reading from picture books like most grade-school teachers do. (And it wasn’t just fables and fairy tales they were telling; we learned American history that way too, as a story.) That’s probably why I’ve always had warm feelings toward storytellers who repurpose folklore, be it Neil Gaiman in his Sandman comics, or Ocelot here. The whole of Kirikou And The Sorceress is positioned as a legend about an outsized hero, but it’s also about delivering simple life lessons: fire can harm you, water can drown you, and you give unlimited power to that which you fear.
ANIMATION AND INFLUENCES
Noel: The first time I saw Kirikou And The Sorceress, about 10 years ago, I was especially taken with the animation, not because it was unlike anything I’d seen before, but because it’s unlike I anything I was used to at feature-length. The characters’ limited movements wouldn’t be out of place in some of the Hanna-Barbera or Filmation TV series of the 1960s and 1970s, and the abstracted designs and modern-art backdrops recall some of the experimental shorts coming out of Eastern Europe in the Cold War era, or some of the aesthetically playful UPA cartoons of the 1950s. But as for features, the closest comparisons I can think of in animation are Ralph Bakshi and the arty French science-fiction film Fantastic Planet. Ocelot’s work isn’t exactly like Bakshi’s or René Laloux’s, but it does operate under the principle that limited animation can be palatable for long stretches if there’s enough there to catch the eye.
Tasha: Influence-wise, Kirikou’s visual style was heavily drawn from French painter Henri Rousseau, but Keith’s more familiar with him than I am, so I’ll let him explicate that. Also, director Michel Ocelot has from the beginning worked with two-dimensional characters against complicated backgrounds. Originally, he used ultra-elaborate construction-paper silhouettes in the style of Lotte Reiniger, the pioneer who made the first full-length animated feature; he’s said he wanted to be an animator, and the style was cheap enough that he could afford it. Looking at the rest of his films, he’s intermittently gone back to Reiniger’s style, but even his non-silhouette films tend to feature figures moving against visually rich but flat cutout-style backgrounds. It takes some getting used to, but it has its charms because it’s so visually unusual. Kirikou has two sequels, both set in the time period before the title character saved and married Karaba and grew up, and the most recent, 2012’s Kirikou And The Men And Women, is entirely CGI. I think it looks a lot less handcrafted and appealing, and more artificial and processed, even while using the exact same character models. You be the judge:
Visuals aside, though, I tend to think some of the biggest influences on Kirikou are animation classics like Looney Tunes, which is what I think of whenever Kirikou goes dashing off at comical speeds. And every time I watch him burrowing through his elaborate tunnels, I think of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck popping out of a hole in the ground and muttering that they shoulda taken that left back at Albuquerque.
Keith: Borrowing from Rousseau is kind of a natural for this movie. His love of lush jungle settings fits in with the material, and of course it’s gorgeous. But Rousseau wasn’t a realist. His paintings have a flat, dreamlike quality that make them feel a little unreal. That’s partly because they weren’t taken from life: He never left France, and never saw a jungle in person. So it’s fitting that a French adaptor of African tales would look to him for inspiration, but including him is also a bit of a confession of inauthenticity, that what we’re seeing is the director’s interpretation of those tales from afar.
Nathan: To me, one of Kirikou’s most striking, memorable elements is its use of music. Youssou N’Dour’s songs embody the archetypal simplicity and power of the legends the film is dramatizing, their childlike directness. But there’s also an intriguing mutability to them. I was particularly struck by how the same ode to Kirikou can be celebratory and joyous when sung with a certain inflection and rhythm, and elegiacal and deeply sad when sung with another. N’Dour’s songs and his lyrics aren’t complicated, which is much of their infectious appeal.
Tasha: I love the way that ode to Kirikou is so openly diegetic—musicals often operate under the assumption that all the spontaneous song-and-dance is just a metaphor for people’s emotions, and no one’s actually busting out singing, or dropping into suspiciously complicated group-choreographed moves. But the “Kirikou is tiny, but he is mighty” song feels rough and shapeless enough to actually be made up in the moment by kids elaborating on a catchy tune and a simple theme, and their dancing is just as individualistic. (They remind me a bit of the Peanuts kids, each doing their own idiosyncratic dance.) And the story is clear about the fact that song is really happening as part of the community’s outbursts of joy and relief: Kirikou goes home to his mother and proudly proclaims that the other kids made up a song about him, and later, he hums it to himself whenever he’s feeling particularly proud and successful. All that aside, though, the most effective musical moment for me comes when he meets the snarling polecat underground, and the shrieking musical score suggests a flock of birds screaming in terror. I have no idea what kind of musical instrument we’re hearing there (though I just heard it again on the Ender’s Game soundtrack, the only other place I’ve ever noticed it). But the unfamiliarity and intensity of the simple melody line really underlines the unnerving quality of the encounter for me.
Noel: Tasha, the spontaneity of the villagers’ songs for Kirikou has always been one of my favorite parts of the movie too. It sounds like people actually singing, unrehearsed. Watching the film again, though, I was struck by how eclectic the soundtrack is, which hadn’t really registered before. Some of the music has the quality of a simple tribal song or rhythm, but elements of funk, jazz, and rock ’n’ roll creep in as the story evolves and Kirikou’s adventures become more daring. It’s as though the increasing complexity of the score is just keeping time with the hero’s maturation.
Matt: You all make excellent points, and the songs are wonderful, but I’d just like to note that I watched this movie five days ago, and not a waking hour has gone by since where I haven’t sung “Kirikou is tiny, but he is mighty” at least once. I’ve been earwormed like Chekov in Star Trek II, and I’m starting to worry I will never recover.
Noel: Matt, I find it helpful to switch it up every now and then, and sing the other refrain: “Kirikou is so brave, thanks to him we’re saved.”
Tasha: Or the third one: “Kirikou is my friend, my friend to the end.” Or make up your own verses! In all honesty, I first saw this back in college with some friends, and we were all struck both by the song, and by the villagers’ intransigence in belittling and sneering at Kirikou, even after he repeatedly rescued them and their children. We went around for weeks singing to each other “Kirikou is my friend, but I treat him like shit,” or “Kirikou is tiny, and I’m a great big jerk.” Neither of which rhyme or scan, but singing that to each other helped burn off both the earworm and some of the righteous indignation we felt on his behalf.
Nathan: It helps that Kirikou is such a charismatic, delightful little scamp that even I wanted to spontaneously improvise a song in his honor, especially considering what jerks his fellow villagers are. Those creeps merit a dis song; Kirikou, an enduring and infectious ode.
Tasha: One thing we haven’t talked about at all with regards to Kirikou is its pacing, which fascinates me in part because it’s so different from the standard cinematic fairy tales we’re used to. Ocelot takes time for a lot of little touching moments, and fills them with interesting character business, like Kirikou disconsolately splashing in the shallows after the kids won’t let him play with them. Or him idly donning a water-dipper as a hat while talking to his mother about his problems and their possible solutions. Or my favorite scene in the film, when he crawls into his grandfather’s lap for just a moment of comfort, of being the small, vulnerable child his body suggests he is. I can’t imagine an American animated film allowing this kind of downtime and sense of quiet reflection.
Noel: What’s so great about the scene with his grandfather is that it helps keep Kirikou from being some kind of one-dimensional superhero. It’s reassuring to know that he gets tired sometimes. Similarly, when he straps his dagger to his back and tries to run, only to find that he’s encumbered himself too much, it shows he can make some strategic mistakes. There’s an appealing wryness about Kirikou, too. I love how at the end, when he’s full grown and no one will believe that it’s him, Kirikou chuckles at his skeptical uncle, saying, “Big or small, you’ve never recognized me.” It brings the story full circle from the beginning, and emphasizes Kirikou’s occasional exasperation with his perpetually doubtful village.
Keith: All of what you touch on ties into what feels like some of the central elements to the film’s appeal: its oddness and unpredictability. There’s nothing formulaic here, from the pacing to the story beats to the way the animation style shifts from the relatively lush opening to the two-dimensional, woodcut-style sequences, everything here is unpredictable. But it also feels consistent with the world of the film, which follows the logic of a folk tale, taking many memorable digressions, but working toward a clear point. Again, I’m not sure how faithful the film is to the source myths, but it feels like a true translation of their spirit.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion began yesterday with the Keynote essay on Kirikou And The Sorceress’ adherence to and deviation from the fairy-tale norm, and concludes tomorrow with a group look at other favorite overlooked or underrated animated films.