In Streaming Choices, I take a quick glance at the world of cinema available on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.
Rating: Four and a half stars (out of five)
Storytelling is inherent in humanity. We all need to make sense of the world, to order things, to imbue meaning into our actions and those of others. That comes across in tales large, small, and in between. For some reason, though, it seems the biggest, broadest stories — myths and fairy tales — last longest. It is likely there were ancient mumblecore adherents, telling the tiniest narratives possible about small victories and inane insults of their Greek villages or Roman kitchens, but history has swallowed them for any number of reasons.
We’re left with the grand chronicles featuring familiar names like Hercules, Achilles, or Moses. This results from the fundamental, overwhelming universality of their stories. They intentionally lack details specific to the characters and situations that would make them more “real.” They have few idiosyncrasies to tie them to the time in which they were written. They feature lessons about people — struggling with the pull of diametrically opposed poles, doing everything in one’s power to find love, standing up for the oppressed. They also have strict rules in place to limit the characters’ options; gods, nature, the rules of warfare, and more keep the protagonists from doing all they, and we, would like to do. These are stories about everyone and everything, and anyone can project themselves and those they know into the archetypes they follow as they read or listen along.
French animation director Michel Ocelot has internalized these notions. Unlike the universal myth makers of the past, though, he has modern technology and the visual components it affords him. He makes beautiful use of it, particularly in 2011’s Tales of the Night.
The film uses a simple framing device — three friends hang out in an old theater to write and act out adventures of mythic characters, like princesses, wolves, dragons, and magical drummers from cultures around the world. It’s a cute, agreeable setup that would be a delightful lark in itself if that’s all it had going for it. But Ocelot has bigger things on his mind.
Take the character designs, for instance. Their distinct personalities come through in the wonderful voice work of Julien Beramis, Marine Griset, and Yves Bersacq [Writer’s note: Forgive me if the English accents of the version I watched were not played by those very French-sounding actors, for they are the only ones listed on the film’s IMDb page.]. But they are animated in a silhouette style that never falters, except for the occasional incorporation of their eyes. Ocelot is telling his audience, “Go ahead. They are you. Join in!”
And so we do. We collaborate with Ocelot and his actors by fully realizing who these characters are with our minds; we provide the visual connection ourselves. They build the bridge but they don’t push us to the other side. We must do it ourselves. That is a form of ultimate trust and lack of condescension towards an audience.
Ocelot situates his shadow archetypes in a vibrant world not unlike the stained glass windows of the world’s most gorgeous cathedrals. The ornate detail of every “set” is immense, while tipping occasionally into surrealism. The bright pinks, purples, and oranges of the king’s chambers in the story of the Boy’s adventure to the Caribbean afterlife (without having died first) bring to mind the dream sequences of Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. The golden temples of the dragon tale put you directly into a vast South American empire.
His use of the transportive power of cinema and the literal visual depictions of character archetypes would suggest Ocelot believes in a world of unlimited possibilities. But his stories each have the restrictive rules mentioned earlier. The Boy in the Caribbean story is forced to search for seemingly unattainable objects and make impossible guesses by the king, lest he be executed. The Boy’s fight with the South American dragon causes an ancient prophecy to inflict bedlam on the empire. Ocelot subverts all these rules in clever ways, which again suggests an unlimited positivity to his outlook, but these characters still must follow these rules before they can overcome them. The rules themselves never break, they just get worked around after being installed. It’s a magical ode to working within society’s systems and finding ways around the periphery to make life work to your advantage. Because that’s all we can do.
Tales of the Night is currently available on Netflix Instant.