Kirikou and the Sorceress was a career breakthrough for the French animator Michel Ocelot, following regular work in shorts and television beginning in the 1970s. Kirikou, his 1998 feature debut, was his gateway into long-form work and music videos, and spawned a cottage industry of sequels and picture books, depicting further adventures of Kirikou, the extremely precocious hero-baby inspired by West African folklore—who is tiny, but mighty; small in size, but very wise, to quote from Youssou N’Dour’s title song, which is as appealingly high-energy, handmade and direct as the film itself. And, indeed, as Ocelot’s filmography as a whole. In recent decades, Ocelot’s animated works, made with more direct access to funding and digital technology, have returned to the cutout style of his earlier work.
Tales of the Night, from 2011, shares its title with a 1992 TV special, and both are works of silhouette animation, using black cutout figures against illustrated backdrops (a style derived from pioneer Lotte Reiniger). It’s fascinating to compare the 1992 Tales, with its herky-jerky motions, to the 2011 Tales, animated digitally in the same style, and in which the figures move fluidly through more elaborately decorative backdrops (which are also more amenable to the close-ups and lateral tracking by which Ocelot simulates camera movement). Ocelot began working in cutout animation because of its financial expediency, he often says, but it’s interesting and revealing to note his continued interest in the shadow-play aesthetic, which is stripped-down, suggestive and unreal. Ocelot has expressed skepticism of computer animation, saying, in one interview:
“I think the image is heavy and unappealing and going in the wrong direction, trying just to ape live action. Even when they show monsters, they try to make them look like live reality. It is absurd. If you want to look like live action, just do live action. […] I like people to see it is not real. We are just together, I am telling stories, you play with me at make believe. It is much better if you can see it is a fairy tale, period. […] A few CGI films look to me like a demo reel for computers, instead of telling the story and going straight to the point.”
Like so much of Ocelot’s work, then, Kirikou and the Sorceress is, out of both aesthetic choice and necessity, evocative rather than immersive. The film is a work of hand-drawn cel animation, made over five years, by animators in several different countries, as Ocelot and his producers cobbled together international funding. Though its characters are fully illustrated, and not silhouette cut-outs, the film retains the tableau perspective, and stark division between painted backgrounds and mobile, foregrounded characters, familiar from Saturday morning cartoons. This is not to say that the film is visually flat—except in the literal, perspectival, non-pejorative sense. In particular, the trees are wonderful, inky branches rendered with a sparse delicacy that’s practically calligraphic. This is especially important for a film that is, despite its intelligence and artistry, basically a children’s story. The open spaces are to be filled in with imagination.
Movement is mostly lateral, and characters are very often seen in profile: this gives frontal framings a real charge. During the underground section of his hero’s journey, Kirikou crawls, left to right, through tunnels rendered as bright cutaways against a black backdrop. When confronted with a skunk, the threat is emphasized by a cut to Kirikou’s view of the predator’s full face, snarling with menace, his threat embodied by his fearful symmetry.
The most effective and frequent use of this device is Kirikou’s adversary, the sorceress Karaba. The tormentor of Kiriko’s village, who is said to have dried up their well, and eaten all their menfolk, she is introduced head-on, confrontationally, with Medusa dreads radiating outward from her head (four on each side, one pointing straight up), and rings of gold around her dress, looking like the Art Deco fembot in Metropolis. (The Metropolis comparison is underscored by Karaba’s towering gray dwelling, and her army of automaton “fetishes.” The contrast to the natural world is jarring; it also suggests that the film’s aesthetic is not merely restricted to a simple primitivism. Rather, it suggests a give and take between the global North and South, by reminding us that the futurism of Deco was inspired in large part by the contemporaneous Egyptology craze, and the stunningly planar, stylized aspects of African masks and other art objects.)
The color palette is quite bright: not just the jungle greens and sky blues, but even the savannah browns have a monochrome vibrancy. The slightly blocky colors, and generally understated animation style, give every line a wonderful curvy vitality: the infant Kirikou, nude throughout much of the film, has a protruding rump, round as an apple—it’s somehow incredibly appropriate to this spirited, comically ingenuous character—and the women and children of his village have a fascinating diversity of body types. (The pervasive animated nudity is frequently cited as a reason why Kirikou is much less well-known in the US. Ocelot, for his own part, spent his school years from age six until early adolescence in Guinea, and has described the frank attitude towards the human body he encountered there as being “much sounder.”)
“I’ve always been conscious of the ability of children to follow serious subjects, to guess at the meaning of unknown elements or to store up things that are incomprehensible to them now in order to understand them at a later time. If you make a film in which a child understands everything, you’re making a bad film, and you’re doing a bad thing: you’re not helping the child to grow.”
The begins at full speed: the first words, as an expectant mother sits contemplating her belly, are an insistent and immediate: “Mother! Bring me into the world!” To which she replies, “A child who can speak from the inside of his mother, can bring himself into the world.” Out comes the baby, and his wonderful matter-of-factness (he detaches his own umbilical cord!) leads him to immediately become the champion of his village. He challenges Karaba—whose minions burn the thatched huts of any villagers who refuse to hand over their gold—restores water to the village’s well, and embarks on a journey into the mountains to discover the secret to her hold over the village. He outfoxes Karaba’s fetishes, befriends animals, wears disguises, seeks the advice of a powerful magician, and returns wiser and braver for the final showdown.
Ocelot wrote the screenplay in a week, cherry-picking elements he liked from various African myths. Certain aspects of the narrative, such as a miraculous rebirth, and a transformative kiss, seem more familiar from the Western canon, but are basically harmonious, and tweaked productively and progressively.
With a running time only a few minutes over an hour, Kirikou is a movie for kids: guileless and swift, with lively, upbeat music, and characters who think aloud (or, in the case of Karaba, who talk to their henchmen). And the film is likewise emotionally open. Though never naïve, Kirikou is childlike, and his relationship with his tender mother (“this mother who never panics and accepts” her brazen, legendary infant, as Ocelot has described the character) is reassuring and affirming.
Every character is basically transparent, with feelings and emotions which are broad in a way that children can recognize, but also complex, deepening the story with irreducible humanity. The village’s old man makes oracular, pompous pronouncements which are invariably proved wrong; the other children at first refuse to play with Kirikou, celebrate him when he saves them from one of Karaba’s tricks, and ignore his advice a second time, again to be rescued. The wicked Karaba, in fact, stands out less for being evil than for being, initially, opaque. (“Why is Karaba so mean and evil?” Kirikou asks often. No one knows, or has thought to wonder.) As it turns out, Karaba’s confrontational pose, both in her visual presentation and her actions and affect, is has a specific root cause: the reason she always faces forward is that she will never turn her back on anyone. In her back is a poisoned thorn, the source of her power but also of her resentment, ever since several men held her down and embedded it there. (The flashback scene depicting this trauma, featuring uncharacteristically fragmentary superimpositions, is fairly clearly a metaphor for rape.) Thus her malevolence is the result of trauma. Ocelot’s lesson for children is the same as Renoir’s for adults: “Everyone has their reasons.” In the end, Kirikou triumphs because he’s able to see the other side of the sorceress, in multiple senses. How fitting that Ocelot’s film should hinge on a character who’s able to understand that things are more complex than they appear.