New Video // 2011 // 84 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // February 13th, 2013
Each night, in an empty cinema, a world of fairytales is unlocked.
Renowned French animator Michel Ocelot presents six short stories aimed squarely for young viewers. Using a deceptively simple looking animation style that reduces his characters to black silhouettes, these tales challenge their heroes with clear choices between right and wrong. However, that which is designed to speak to children may not hold the interest of adults.
An old filmmaker and two kids meet in a theater to invent stories for the movies. These are the six scenarios they create:
* "Night of the Werewolf"
A young princess is heartbroken when the man she loves is engaged to her older sister. When the man entrusts his fiancée with his secret -- he transforms into a wolf when the moon is full -- she betrays him.
* "Jon Jon and the Beauty Not Knowing"
A man journeys to the land of the dead to win the hand of the king's daughter. To accomplish this he must pass three tests.
* "The Chosen One of the Golden City"
A stranger arrives at an Aztec city and falls for a beautiful girl. However, she's to be sacrificed to a magical beast that protects the city.
* "Tam-tam Boy"
An African boy prefers playing the drums to learning the useful skills of agriculture and making war. When an old man gives him a magical drum, the boy has the chance to prove his worth.
* "The Boy Who Never Lied"
A Tibetan boy is torn between his friendship with a talking horse and his affection for a beautiful girl. His love for one means the betrayal of the other.
* "The Young Doe and the Architect's Son"
A boy rescues a girl from a cruel sorcerer but she is cursed by the vengeful magician. With the help of an old man, he seeks a fairy that can lift the spell.
Tales of the Night is a unique animated film and it does several things that I truly admirable. However, I wasn't able to connect with it emotionally. The striking animation style was an enjoyable novelty at first, but over the feature-length running time it feels like an overplayed gimmick. The movie is broken up as six short stories, so perhaps watching them individually, instead of as one feature, would be a more enjoyable experience?
Director Michel Ocelot (Azur And Asmar: The Princes' Quest) has played with silhouette animation before but in this movie he fully commits to the technique. Characters are rendered as black figures usually in profile. They move like paper puppets, though the use of computers gives the animators much more freedom. The silhouetted figures are bestowed personality through their costumes, sometimes with elaborate headdresses, and their voices. The animators must be particularly mindful of the characters' profiles and how those poses and movements will communicate intent and emotion. The style looks elegant, even simple, but I don't for a moment think the task is any easier for depicting the characters in complete silhouette.
The silhouette animation creates problems for me where empathy and illusion are concerned. Since we never see their facial features, it always feels like the characters are at a distance both physically and emotionally. Though they're animated, they still seem somewhat lifeless. Furthermore, the illusion of the silhouette is compromised whenever the camera angle deviates from the side profile shot. It makes sense to see these black figures in the foreground against the bright backgrounds. However, when the camera moves 90 degrees to look at a character's face, we'd expect the lighting should also look different. Instead, the characters are revealed to be black and featureless (aside from glowing eyes) on all sides.
The backgrounds exhibit deep shades of colors and dazzling patterns. It certainly is a spectacular contrast to the silhouettes and these complementary elements work beautifully together. There are countless scenes where the still frame of a wide shot would make a splendid piece of art.
The prelude that introduces each tale takes place in an empty theatre where an older man, a girl and a boy are brainstorming ideas for stories. Only on the English language dub is there a voice over explanation that the old man used to make movies but he's been told he's "too old" to continue doing so. His young collaborators want to make movies but they've been told they're "too young" to contribute. So, this trio meets up to workshop their story ideas. There is a recurring theme that seeps into their stories: a boy and girl wanting to get together and an older figure who either obstructs them or helps them along. The story makers' give life to their creations, the boy and girl craft costumes to play their respective roles, and the trajectory of their tales seems to suggest the nature of their relationship but this plot thread never reaches a conclusion. Despite the exotic locales where they set the tales, the familiarity of the underlying theme eventually makes them feel repetitive.
Tales of the Night (Blu-ray) looks good in high definition. The 1080p/AVC transfer allows the black silhouettes to look very sharp and clean. The backgrounds are shown with vibrant colors and fine textures. The only video glitch I noticed were some blocky, mosaic patches in the red color fields. The original French language track is provided as a two-channel DTS-HD stereo option. It's okay but slightly tinny to my ears. The English dub is presented in DTS-HD 5.1 surround and it's a small improvement, though there isn't a need to make the dialogue-driven soundtrack more complex. The English voice actors do a respectable job replicating the mood of the French track. Some music and environmental sound effects are shared among the satellite speakers to make it a little more immersive.
There is a pair of extras included on the disc that give some insight into Ocelot's motivations for the movie. The first is an interview that runs about 18 minutes. The director talks about his interest in this particular animation style and of his hope to communicate to children through the lessons of fables. The interviewer poses some good questions and even asks if the silhouetted characters are indeed meant to be Black characters. The 12-minute featurette follows Ocelot to a UNICEF event called the Festival of Color. There, he screens one of the tales for an audience of kids and gives a seminar on his animation. It's evident Ocelot enjoys showing his movie to the youngsters and we hear some positive reactions from the kids. A very brief North American trailer is also included. This two-disc special edition release also supplies a DVD copy of the movie that includes all the extras from the Blu-ray disc.
I admire the effort and originality of telling stories in this very distinct animation style. Some of the background art is really lovely. Telling stories to young audiences through fables is wonderfully old-fashioned and maybe I'm just the wrong viewer for this movie. While I respect the work, I didn't feel emotionally invested in the film. At feature-length, the stories felt repetitive and the unique style felt limited and gimmicky. For animation fans, it's definitely worth at least a rental. I suspect kids would grow restless because there isn't much action but in short doses it might captivate.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Video
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* DVD Copy