In the superstar laden world of film, it may seem odd that animators often get the celebrity short shrift. Certainly there are exceptions, people whose contributions have entered the public consciousness at large (Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, and, more recently, Pixar's John Lasseter and his cohorts), but all in all, animators tend to work long and hard for very little recognition. How many general readers would recognize the name Eyvind Earle, for example? Or, in the even more unlikely moniker department, Michel Ocelot? And yet Ocelot has carved out one of the most distinctive bodies of animated work over the past several decades, and Azur and Asmar: The Princes' Quest continues that tradition with an at times absolutely audacious visual splendor that will leave most viewers bug-eyed.
The era of CGI, both in traditional film and in completely animated features, has jaded the modern eye to the point where most everyone is immune to all but the most fantastic visual effects. Something you will notice, and perhaps initially complain about, in Azur and Asmar, Ocelot's first foray into computer generated animation, is the relative simplicity of the human characters' rendering. It's completely smooth (as if this purely animated film had been subjected to the most radical DNR imaginable), unnatural and almost primitively videogame-esque in its unreality. And yet that in and of itself lends the feature a great deal of its appeal. Ocelot specializes in fairy tales (his Kirkou and the Sorceress is a classic in this sub-genre), and the patently fake humans make that world somehow more "real," as strange as it may seem. Not just the character design itself is unreal, but their movements have the weird, disjointedness of early videogames, again heightening the strangeness of the storyline.
What really sets the film apart though is its mind-boggling array of colors and incredibly complex, arabesque-laden backgrounds, as well as its quite unique insistence on exploiting a two-dimensional field of view (something in fact that calls back to Eyvind Earle's similarly graphic work in Disney's Sleeping Beauty). With a somewhat laconic plot, reminiscent at times of Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli masterpieces, Azur and Asmar recounts the story of two boys raised together in an unspecified time and place, though it seems to be a medieval middle to far eastern locale. With echoes of the Isaac and Ishmael story, Azur is light skinned and blue-eyed, while Asmar is dark. Asmar's mother Jeanene is Azur's wetnurse, and after Azur, evidently noble-born, is sent to the city by his father to study with a tutor, Asmar and Jeanene are sent packing, rather unceremoniously so.
Cut forward a decade and a half or so, and Azur has decided to make good on his childhood dream of freeing and then wedding the "Djinn Fairy." Djinns are something like elves or sprites, small creatures that watch over and magically enable people without their knowledge. Though Ocelot never completely clarifies his mythology (which may hamper the more literal minded viewer), the Djinn Fairy is kept captive in a cave, though why is never made completely clear. When Azur's pride in setting out on his adventure gets the best of him, he finds himself shipwrecked in an alien land where blue eyes are a curse. That sets him out on an adventure with fellow castaway Crapou, which ultimately leads to them reuniting with Jeanene and Asmar. It then turns out that Asmar is about to embark on his own search to free and wed the Djinn Fairy.
The bottom line is, as in any good magical fantasy, the passing plot is really secondary to the wonder of a land where anything can happen. This film is so full of visual inventiveness that any given frame can be frozen and marveled over for quite some time. The colors here are simply astounding--some of the most deeply saturated and amazingly diverse combinations I've ever witnessed. Pinks crash up against oranges, with shades of purple and cerulean blue in an amazing panoply that simply needs to be seen to be believed. And the graphic quality of the backgrounds is truly mind bendingly complex. Despite being purposefully cast in two dimensions, the obviously Islam-inspired environments are a swirling array of geometrical shapes and interlocking patterns that never cease to delight the eye.
For western audiences unused to the more slow pace of foreign animated features, Azur and Asmar may be maddening at times. Similarly, for those who insist on photo-realistic characters and environments, the film's ostensibly unreal elements may grate. To these people I would recommend relaxing a little, and simply letting Azur and Asmar's unique and frankly (to me, anyway) incredible charms wash over you like a warm desert breeze. There is so much to look at, and with Gabriel Yared's evocative underscore, to listen to, that fleeting wishes for a slam-bang action sequence will hopefully fade into the arabesque-laden background. This is one of the most deliciously beautiful animated films I've had the pleasure of watching, and if you open yourself to experiencing something unusual and literally fantastic, you will come away with a new appreciation for the animator's art.