In recent years, I've become fascinated with animated foreign films for kids. There's so much good stuff out there — some recent examples include The Secret of Kells (Ireland), Chico & Rita (Spain), A Cat in Paris (France) and Ponyo (Japan). These are movies you're unlikely to see in theaters, so you have to track them down on DVD, Blu-ray or digital download.
While I certainly appreciate the artfulness of these films — each has earned various world cinema awards — I have very practical reasons for keeping them on the shelf. I have two young kids at home and if I have to watch one more goddamn Shrek movie I'm going to kill myself.
Tales of the Night — the enchanting French animated feature new to DVD and Blu-ray this week — is the kind of children's movie you can feel good about putting into rotation. It's the latest project from French animation artist Michel Ocelot and it will provide you and the kids with some images you've never seen before.
Ocelet has worked in a variety of media, but he's most known for his "shadow play" style of silhouettes set against intricate and impossibly colorful backgrounds. The six stories in Tales of the Night have been compiled from previous television specials, anthologized in 2011 for European cinema presentation.
Each fable in Tales of the Night has a different setting — Tibet, the Caribbean, medieval Europe, ancient Aztlan — with corresponding art design and color palette. Buddhist mandalas swirl in the Tibetan sequences; angular monoliths loom in the Aztec City of Gold. The shorts are stitched together with a framing device about a Parisian cinema projectionist and his two young protegees.
The stories are literally all over the map. In "Boy Tam-Tam," an African teenager deploys a magic drum against his tribe's enemies. In "Ti Jean and the Belle-Sans-Connaître," an Antilles youth ventures underground into the land of the dead. In "The Werewolf," two princesses fall in love with the same dashing young prince, who has a secret to keep.
Each is essentially an Aesop-style fable, with gentle conflict resolution and tidy moral content. If there's a theme running through the collection, it's that love conquers all. There's also a recurring thread about replacing old and tired traditions with the ideas and energy of youth. The kings and elders in these stories don't come off too good. The moral of the story? Old people are hopelessly square.
Kids should respond positively to this sentiment, and the really wee ones will stay for the bright visuals and dazzling colors on display. Adults will want to tune into this frequency as well. Tales of the Night is one of the most purely gorgeous visual spectacles I've seen on home video.
Watch this one on Blu-ray and high-def TV if possible. The lines are razor sharp, the blacks deep and saturated. And the chroma! I saw colors here I haven't seen since my undergraduate adventures with alkaloid derivatives.
Tales of the Night is a full English-language dub, which works just fine, though I have a suspicion some of the more lyrical passages lose a little in translation. (A French language track with subtitles is also available in the extras.) Other bonus materials include an interview with Ocelot and the featurette “The Festival of Color: Storytelling through Animation.”
The extras reveal that Ocelot used a combination of old cutout techniques and modern computer animation to achieve the effects in his newest anthology. They also suggest that Ocelot puts a lot of thought into his children's stories.
"I want to please them, to make them happy, to give them eleven minutes of beauty," Ocelot says. "But children learn about life with my stories, so I have to be careful."
And parents have to watch those stories with the kids, so Ocelot is doing noble work here all around. Anything that avoids wise-ass ogres and shouting donkeys is OK by me.
Also New This Week:
The Awakening is a stately and satisfying ghost story about a mysterious haunting at an isolated British boarding school. Set just after World War One, it's an old-fashioned kind of scary movie, full of dusty parlors, creepy dollhouses and lonesome ghosts. Rebecca Hall (The Town) headlines as a crusading rationalist who finds her scientific skepticism challenged by increasingly inexplicable encounters. Is there a Big Twist? Yes! Does it work? Not entirely. Does it matter? Not really. The Awakening is all about the shivery delights of mood and tone and old English manor houses on the moors.
Spanish director Luis Benuel's final film, the 1977 romantic drama That Obscure Object of Desire, has been reissued to Blu-ray with a new suite of bonus materials.
Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) directs Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell and Tom Waits in the L.A. crime comedy Seven Psychopaths.
Plus: International horror with Citadel; found-footage horror with Paranormal Activity 4; cartoon "horror" with Hotel Transylvania; and TV-on-DVD collections from Downton Abbey, Femmes Fatales, Misfits and Pan Am: The Complete Series.