Thursday, October 16, 2008

Azur et Asmar

Since most of the exposure for most people might only be to Pixar films in the sphere of animation, I would forgive them if they thought Azur et Asmar refreshing: of course, how many folklores are made today as films? And then, this is an “original folklore,” though this is where the film’s troubles start. Taking bits and pieces from various sources, like the old man sitting on Azur’s shoulders reminding one of Richard Burton’s Arabian Nights and the lion taking Azur flying through mountains of a similar Russian folk tale, does not always work: one has to sew everything into a wonderful whole. And then you have a princess Shamsa-Sabah who is suddenly too much of a Pixarish character suddenly thrown in this static animated film embellished with Arabic motifs and Arab language: static canvases don’t always work to make a film beautiful. For it is Azur and Asmar who are equally static; Asmar has actually not much of a role in except being mentioned in the title of the film! Concessions for being politically correct to an Arab?!!

The film starts again statically, but it does dissolve into a couple of beautiful scenes when Azur and Asmar fight as children, and get draped into mud, straw, tree branches, whatever. The animation here is delightful: both are like springs, seesaws, as if an elastic bond connects them in all their fights; also easier to animate this unrealistically, it’s also much more funny, and conveys the spirit of childhood. Asmar’s antics on the sidelines while watching Azur learn the crafts of noblemen lead one to believe that yes, the film will be really interesting, the story is going to be exciting when they both will grow up. But, the story and the film lose track, in trying to make things politically correct, and in maintaining the balance between everything French and Arabic, blanc and noir. Yes, Crapoux to some extent saves it, but then he is again a little jaded character brought from Pixar’s studio: he seems to be again the Edna of The Incredibles, reborn with a leaner role.

Maybe, part of the limited success that the film has met with, at least critically, has been due to the focus on characters’ faces. Though Azur and his nanny have not been assigned much variety of facial expressions, except closing and opening mouths and eyes, their faces have been rendered with much detail: Azur’s blue eyes seem really watery and pitiful, the texture and rendering artists have done a great job. Again, each of the novelties and delicacies of the Arab world have been focussed upon more: it’s OK if Azur’s stumbling when pretending to be blind for the first time looks very artificial, looks almost as if he himself is a stick rather than a human being; what counts in the director’s books apparently is to create quiet, serene background shots and frames. This is where Michel Ocelot errs: he should’ve selected a completely 2-D format in that case, right now it’s neither here nor there. Also, somehow people accept anything, even the most unreal things, when watching in 2-D; the same thing seems too much unreal or uncanny (yes, the uncanny valley phenomenon, as experienced by many in The Polar Express) in a 3-D format if you haven’t done your animation and dynamics properly. Using the 3-D medium yet the flat frames makes Azur et Asmar actually look very stupid: probably even most children won’t fall for it. And the purpose of any computer-generated animation, actually any film in itself, is to make the viewers fall for it!

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