Paul Grimault's Le Roi et l'Oiseau took nearly 30 years to complete, a labour of love and story of artistic passion that typifies the work of France's most renowned animator. After seeing the film on its release in 1980, and known in English as The King and the Mockingbird, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata were inspired by everything that animation could be. Studying it assiduously, the lessons learned fueled the creation of their own studio, Ghibli. He is the direct ancestor to celebrated animators like Sylvain Chomet, his work an antipode to his contemporaries in the United States. Le Roi et l'Oiseau, and Grimault's body of shorts, demonstrate a keen, European sensibility and experimental approach that still astonishes today.
Grimault's work is to Walt Disney as Franco-Belgian bande dessinée are to American comics. Both have their place and one, thankfully, does not have to choose between the two. Any serious student of animation should have little patience for the view that Disney is inferior simply because it is popular or musical or familiar. Yet there are palpable differences between the two producers. A sensitive reader knows the subtleties of tone and art separate Tintin, Asterix and The Smurfs from their closest American cousins, not to mention the work of creators like Moebius or Jacques Tardi. Grimault exactly shares this quality, his work being effectively a bande dessinée come to life.
For the incidental benefit of those who cannot speak French, Grimault makes little use of dialogue and embraces the art of motion with beautiful, even lyrical, animation. From a strictly technical standpoint, his rubber-band human figures are flawed but those flaws lend style and charm. His painted backgrounds are astonishing works of imagination and draughtsmanship inspired by countless Continental reference points. His rendition of a fairy tale - Hans Christian Andersen's The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep - lacks the dynamism, excitement, musical numbers and character tropes of a Disney fairy tale, but feels more authentically European for all those reasons.
Conceived in 1948, it substantively alters the Andersen fairy tale (much like Disney's The Little Mermaid) by concentrating on the king, his painted proxy, and throwing a giant robot in for good measure. The latter is a move that, in my opinion, would make every fairy tale that much better. The unloved king is Charles the 5 and 3 make 8 and 8 make 16th ruling over the massive kingdom-castle of Tachycardia, named for a condition of faster than normal heartrate. Described as having loneliness and hunting as his favorite pastimes, he is unmistakably an echo of the 19th century King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Himself unloved, Ludwig retreated into the construction of fairy tale castles like the famous Neuschwanstein, inspiration to both Disney and Le Roi et l'Oiseau. His cousin Elizabeth, Empress of Austria, once said of Ludwig that "He lived only for his dreams, and his sadness was dearer to him than all life itself." Presented for the most part as gratuitously cruel and aloof - such as having hunted the titular Mockingbird's wife - a lovely scene in Charles' private apartment becomes a study in how to describe a character sympathetically through pure character animation, without need of a character to explain why he's sympathetic.
Charles the 5 and 3 make 8 and 8 make 16th is cross-eyed, which seems to be responsible for much of his isolation. A new court-painter is hired to render a portrait of his majesty and gets it right down to the last detail. After punishing his accuracy, the king retires to his secret apartment with the painting. There he muses on it, repaints the eyes so they are no longer crossed, jacks the painting up a few extra feet, and examines himself in a soon-to-be smashed mirror. Tormenting him is another painting of a shepherdess on a wall-panel. She is lovely, and her gaze is cast on the adjacent painting of a chimney sweep. It is a moving scene of great pathos and perhaps one of the most moving in the whole canon of animated film.
The shepherdess and the chimney sweep escape their confines only to be pursued by the painted version of the king. If character is how one behaves when there are no more excuses, then this new king's assumption to the throne is very telling of the original Charles. The pursuit winds its way down the castle and into the very bowels of the structure built upon a ruined city reminiscent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Here the giant robot comes into play as the ultimate in Grimault's playful use of fin de siècle fantastic fiction, from elevators resembling Jules Verne's rockets to watercraft patrolling Venetian-style waterways to bat-winged policemen from French dime novels.
Similar fantastic motifs are expounded in Grimault's short Les passagers de "La Grande Ourse," or Passengers of "The Big Dipper." Coming shortly after Disney's Modern Inventions short and the Fleischer Brothers' All's Fair at the Fair and Superman, Les passagers de "La Grande Ourse" shares that same atmosphere of scientific and technological optimism circa the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. A stowaway boy and his dog run amok aboard an Art Deco electric airliner, hounded by a very particular robot butler.
For Grimault, as for the whole of France, the Second World War was already in full swing by 1939 when production began on Les passagers de "La Grande Ourse." This fact explains some of the challenges facing Grimault that kept him from the same renown and opportunity as his American counterparts. In 1939, he formed the studio Les Gémeaux with André Sarrut, which ended up being the only functioning animation studio in occupied Europe. Despite living under Nazi oppression, it was relatively profitable given that cartoons from Allied countries were verbotten. They weathered the war but finally closed doors in 1948 after Sarrut debuted La Bergère et le Ramoneur, which was for all intents and purposes the working draft of Le Roi et l'Oiseau. The film was expensive to produce, as was "Disney's Folly" Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (which cost more than the total value of the Disney studios), without half the success. Furthermore, Sarrut's premature release caused a rift with Grimault that broke the venture completely. Grimault was forced to spend the next 30 years scraping together enough money and talent to finish the film the way he wanted. In the mean time, he managed to put out a few shorts and paid the bills through advertising work.
Despite being a commercial for Mazda lightbulbs, Le Messager de la Lumière is still a wonderful example of Paul Grimault's animation artistry. The name "Lumière" is one of the most famous French titles in the world, spread by the pioneering brothers who practically invented cinema. In this short, Grimault recalls celestial imagery given prior celluloid life by another French film pioneer, Georges Méliès.
In 1988, Grimault put together a retrospective of his work in the feature film La Table Tournante. A handful of his shorts were grafted together, including Les passagers de "La Grande Ourse," that made the work of France's greatest animator accessible for new generations. In some ways, based on sheer output, Paul Grimault's talent seems stunted... Repressed by circumstance in tumultuous World War and Cold War affected Europe, to the loss of the rest of the globe. His posterity, however, is like all great artists who have enriched their medium with such definitive and masterful works.