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If you’re in a temperate climate like me, I bet you hate these cold, gloomy, dark days at the beginning of winter, right? It makes it so hard to get anything done, which is just great when you’re already a procrastinator. I’ve been very lazy lately and work on Your Name has stalled, so when I realised I wouldn’t get it done before the end of the month, I thought I’d better get onto the next First Thoughts review first so that at least something would come out in time. (I seriously need to get a handle on this).
So, that brings me to our fifth film of the series, Le Roi et L’Oiseau, known in English as The King and the Mockingbird and released – finally – in 1980, marking its fortieth anniversary this year. Directed by French animator Paul Grimault, this film suffered from one of the most infamous cases of development hell in animation history, which is the one thing about it that most people know before seeing it. Incredibly, work on the film began all the way back in 1948, a totally different era of animation than the one it was eventually released in. The piece was partly based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep (1845), being a collaboration between Grimault and French poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, who had completed another Andersen-themed short film with him the year before (Andersen’s works really have had a remarkable impact on the world of animation, haven’t they?).
Grimault and Prévert’s project was highly anticipated at the time, but before they could complete their vision the way they wanted to, disaster struck. The pair were booted off the project and lost the rights to their own film in 1950, with the unfinished work later being released under the title of La Bergère et le Ramoneur (The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep) by Grimault’s partner and producer André Sarrut in 1952, despite their protests. Even worse, the expense of making the portion that had been completed was enough to collapse Grimault’s studio, Les Gémeaux, which he’d founded with Sarrut in 1936, causing a rift that drove the pair apart for the rest of their careers.
Here we have a lull in the story as Grimault regrouped, founding the new studio Les Films Paul Grimault and working to regain the rights to his old film, which he managed by 1967. From there, he then spent another decade earning enough money to finance a new, complete version of the original film, re-starting production at last in 1977. Sadly, his friend Prévert passed away that same spring, so Grimault had to soldier on without him for the remainder of the production, which wrapped up two years later in 1979. At long last, the film made its debut in its intended form a full thirty-two years after production first began on it, dedicated to Prévert under the new title of Le Roi et l’Oiseau.
In case you were wondering about the differences between the two versions, the 1980 film uses 42 of the 1952 film’s 62 minutes of footage, extending its runtime to 87 minutes with plenty of new scenes (although Wikipedia states that a version from 2003 trimmed it back to 84 minutes, for some reason). The 1980 cut also features completely different music and a heavily revised, more symbolic ending, with the original ending and some of the wedding footage taken out. Sometimes, the old and new footage are mixed together in the same scenes, with the King’s target practice at the beginning being a 1980 addition while his shots at the baby bird are from 1952. You can sometimes see the differing animation styles of the two periods at play within the same scene, such as in the lion pit, where the animals alternate between their older, more detailed incarnations and simpler, more abstract modern ones.
For the music, Grimault had an unusual method of working with his Polish composer, Wojciech Kilar – he basically didn’t. Instead, he entrusted the creation of the music almost entirely to Kilar alone, with little to no instruction whatsoever beyond simply giving him a copy of the film to work with. Kilar studied it carefully and then came up with a full score in Poland, which Grimault accepted with no changes. Seems like an incredibly rare amount of artistic freedom, especially in animation, but it’s better than the executive meddling we’re so used to reading about!
The final 1980 cut of the film was distributed by Gaumont, which is the world’s first and oldest film company, founded all the way back in 1895 at the very dawn of cinema and still a major player in the French film industry today. The French cast included Jean Martin as the Mockingbird (replacing Pierre Brasseur from the ’52 version), Pascal Mazzotti as the King of Takicardia (replacing Fernand Ledoux), Agnès Viala as the Shepherdess (replacing Anouk Aimée), Renaud Marx as the Chimneysweep (replacing Serge Reggiani) and Raymond Bussières as the Chief of Police, who was presumably one of the original cast members. Hubert Deschamps also has a small but brilliant role as the robot, which takes on a kind of sentience of its own in the climax. Additionally, a low-budget English dub of the 1952 cut featured no less than Sir Peter Ustinov as its narrator, who was there referred to as Mr. Wonderbird.
Interestingly, despite ostensibly being an adaptation of the Andersen story, only a small portion of the film directly addresses The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep, with most of the film focusing instead on the dynamic between the King and the Mockingbird (hence the title change). In the original, the couple were not paintings but china figurines, with the King and classical statue’s roles being filled by a wooden satyr and a Chinaman. In both versions, the duo escape up the chimney after the statue/Chinaman breaks and admire the stars, but the shepherdess grows afraid in Andersen’s telling and decides to return; the statue in the film references this, but in this version they stay free at the end.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this film is the sheer number of cultural and artistic references it makes, many of which will go over the heads of the non-French. Phrases and concepts that come up include lettres de cachet (king’s letters), gibier de potence (gallows birds, or people who deserved to be hanged), lèse-majesté (contempt for the sovereign) and the Mayor of the Palace, with the Mockingbird making further mentions of the 1877 opera Les cloches de Corneville, the Place d’Italie and the Neuilly festival (Neuilly-sur-Seine being the birthplace of both Grimault and Prévert). A particularly obscure reference is to les dernieres cartouches (last cartridges), which alludes to an episode from the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) involving the Blue Division of the French marines, later memorialised in an 1873 painting by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville.
Some of Grimault’s inspiration for his characters also came from his homeland, with the Mockingbird being based on Jean Mollet (secretary of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire) and the actor Pierre Brasseur, specifically in his portrayal of real-life actor Frédérick Lemaître playing his own creation, Robert Macaire, in the 1945 film Les Enfants du Paradis. (A bit of acting-ception there). Meanwhile, the moustachioed and bowler-hatted police of Takicardia were clearly based on the duo of Thomson and Thompson from the Adventures of Tintin series, created by the artist Hergé in nearby Belgium.
In addition to these very French details, there are also references to then-recent German history, most notably in the King’s resemblance to Hitler in certain shots and in his cult of personality, as well as in his statement that “work… is liberty”, which is an obvious parallel of the infamous Nazi motto “Arbeit macht frei” – “work sets you free” – that was written above the entrances of concentration camps. The distinctive German steel helmets known as Stahlhelm are also featured, and the kingdom of Takicardia bears a resemblance to various iconic German castles, such as Neuschwanstein.
Still further cultural references can be found in the King’s ridiculous title of “King Charles V + III = VIII + VIII = XVI”, which alludes to both Louis XVI and Louis XIV of France (the latter, often known as the “Sun King”, was the great-great-great-grandfather of the former, and the ostentatious kingdom of Takicardia resembles his Versailles). Takicardia’s Venetian-style canals, gondolas and Bridge of Sighs, the Metropolis-inspired design of the robot and underground worker village, and the robot’s final pose in the style of The Thinker (c. 1904) by French sculptor Auguste Rodin are all further nods to the film’s European roots, but Grimault also looked across the Atlantic for further inspiration. The climax of the film has a more American flavour to it, with the focus on mindless working drones feeling reminiscent of Modern Times (1936) and the robot’s chest-beating and general behaviour obviously borrowed from King Kong (1933).
Actually, this blending of different styles is a hallmark of the entire film, which is unsurprising given how long it was in production. The backgrounds are a highlight, reminding me of the work of Maurice Noble and Chuck Jones in their use of scale and depth, while the visual style itself is more painterly and surrealist with a focus on strong perspective, similar to the work of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico and French surrealist Yves Tanguy, who happened to be an old friend of Prévert’s.
As beautiful as the scenery is, however, I personally wasn’t a huge fan of the animation, which fluctuates wildly in quality across the course of the story. Presumably, this is because some of it was created decades earlier in a totally different style; the influence of classic Fleischer shorts can be felt in many moments of slapstick, but the greater fluidity of other scenes – particularly those involving the robot – makes the older animation feel stiff and dated by comparison. Speaking of dated, the character designs also aren’t aging at all well, with the shepherdess and the blind organ-grinder standing out as particularly glaring examples in their bygone hippie fashions. I suppose this was inevitable and I’m not saying Grimault should have started the whole thing again from scratch; it’s just unfortunate that the production delays caused these stylistic discrepancies.
I may be straying into full-on blasphemy now, but I also have to admit to being rather disappointed with the story, which even some fans will admit is not the film’s strongest point. Like many fairy tale adaptations, this one suffers from a great deal of padding to flesh it out to feature-length, leaving it feeling rather bloated and sluggishly paced. My mind wandered, and I kept finding myself losing track of what was going on because I was too busy admiring the lovely backgrounds.
Also, I appreciate that this is forty years old (even seventy, in parts), but come on – was there really no better role for the one female character in this thing than to be a passive subject of affection to be fought over by two males? Perhaps I’m expecting too much of this old film, but considering it was made right in the middle of second-wave feminism, it doesn’t really have an excuse. Nowadays the Shepherdess would likely be given a great deal more agency, but as it is, she’s little more than a pawn in the power-play at the story’s heart. (The cynic in me also wonders whether the abundance of cute animal sidekicks was a marketing choice motivated by Disney’s popularity).
Those criticisms aside, I did enjoy the way the King was depicted, a perfect parody of corrupt egomaniacs in power (and a very appropriate one for our present political climate). He’s so pompous, deluded and conceited, he makes Kuzco seem humble – though he might be a good match for the Queen of Hearts! It’s especially funny to me that nobody even notices when he’s replaced by an eviler doppelganger from within a painting – and the film never bothers to explain what happened to the original.
Outside the King’s antics, the inhabitants of the lion pit are also real scene-stealers; I started having a lot more fun with the film in the last act because of them. Their emotional intelligence is hysterical, as they shush their prey so they can listen to the organ-grinder’s sweet music and then get rallied up into a mob by the Mockingbird to storm Takicardia. There’s also a polar bear who comforts the forlorn chimneysweep and helps the organ-grinder out of the crumbling city like an old friend – it’s so random.
Today, the film is regarded as a masterpiece of French animation and has gone on to influence an entire generation of filmmakers, most notably the Japanese Ghibli directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (you can really see it in Miyazaki’s 1979 debut, The Castle of Cagliostro). Despite its importance, the film’s availability has been notoriously patchy, with the English version initially only available on a rare VHS tape in the UK. It’s not available on home video at all in North America, so my American readers’ only option to see the finished version will be to import the European DVD, an English version of which was released in 2013. (It did used to be on Amazon and Vudu, but has since been removed from both).
As for me, while I can certainly see how it may have influenced the likes of Miyazaki and Takahata (not to mention Don Bluth, Brad Bird, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, all of whose later works share similarities with this), I must admit to finding it a little underwhelming. I didn’t know much about this one going in other than its tortured production history and I’m probably just not “getting” it, but for the most part it left me disenchanted. There were moments where I got really into it and the lions had me rolling, but the central story felt too thin to support a full feature and most of the characters save the King and the Mockingbird were cardboard archetypes, even if the scenery did delight my Metropolis fanboy heart. I had much more fun with the shorter Animal Farm, not to mention Allegro non troppo – The King and the Mockingbird was about as enjoyable as The Adventures of Prince Achmed, but I will admit that it was at least better than Fantastic Planet.
Whatever I may think of it, the fact remains that completing this project after so many years was a truly impressive achievement on Grimault’s part, giving his story a happier ending than Richard Williams had with his beloved – and similarly tortured – Thief and the Cobbler, which finally limped into theatres in the mid-nineties, butchered beyond recognition. I suspect the protracted production is what makes this 1980 film feel so tired for its age, but on the other hand, it’s important to remember why the most influential of the older works can feel this way; you have to try to watch with a clear mind, disregarding the hundred other works that have since taken inspiration from them. If you’re into fairy tales, surrealism or French animation then this is definitely worth a watch, but just be prepared – it’s best appreciated as a visual experience rather than a narrative one.
Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the latest instalment of the series! Next up, I really will be getting back to Your Name, after which I’m hoping to get to Only Yesterday before the end of the year. Hoping, guys. As for First Thoughts, the next entry will be my first ever Satoshi Kon film, Paprika, so I hope you’ll join me again in the new year for that. Until next time, take care and staaay animated!
All images capped from my own copy of the film
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7420238 – credit for poster
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vs3-YZKoO6w – AniMat’s Classic Review of the film
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_King_and_the_Mockingbird – Wiki page
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0079820/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0 – IMDB profile
7 Replies to “First Thoughts on The King and the Mockingbird / Le Roi et l’Oiseau (1980)”
Was it actually released in theatres or only distributed on home video?
I believe it was in theatres, yes; it came out in French cinemas in March of 1980 and then made its way through a few film festivals over the following years. Since then, it seems to have also been re-released in theatres a few times, most recently in 2003 and 2013. It just hasn’t been widely available on DVD until recently, and still isn’t in America for some reason.
Wikipedia makes things confusing, because it only links to the old unfinished 50s version instead of the 1980 one.
Ah, damnit, I actually missed one….oh well, that was to be expected….
I haven’t heard of this one, lol!
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Goro Naya, the voice of Koichi Zenigata, who reprised his role for ‘The Castle of Cagliostro’, would voice the King in the Japanese dub of ‘The King and the Mockingbird’.
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