Film #81: Azur & Asmar: The Princes’ Quest (2006)

opwno_18468122aka: Azur et Asmar
director: Michel Ocelot
language: French and Arabic
length: 95 minutes
watched on: 21 April 2013

I think I picked this one up because it had a quote on the cover that said it was “like Studio Ghibli” or whatever. Maybe… I can see how it has passing similarity, but I thought it was disappointingly un-Ghiblilike.

I actually almost turned it off because the animation quality was so terrible (and yeah, I kinda get that it’s an independent French studio and hats off to them for getting this far in the first place… well, maybe). It’s 3D animation, but the colours are very saturated and the lighting harsh, meaning that most people appear flat. This sometimes gives the impression that it’s actually 2D. In any case, you can hardly see the (white) characters’ faces at all because they’re so saturated. The characters also don’t move naturally, and this effect is very jarring. But in terms of visual design, I would probably praise the backgrounds, which are often bright and colourful, if stylised – several scenes are clearly only in the movie because they wanted to show off the background.

But even then, the rest of the film leaves a lot to be desired. The story is about a French boy from medieval times, Azur, who lives in a castle and has an Arabian nanny. He’s best friends with the nanny’s son, Asmar, and they grow up like brothers, but he’s eventually banned from seeing him, and the nanny disgraced, after a series of accidents. But he remains in his conviction, and sets sail to Arabia once he comes of age in order to find the nanny and discover a fairytale princess along the way.

OK, that’s fine enough. There’s enough there that should be enticing – brotherly-verging-on-gay love, mother-son relationships, adventure to find the princess, but it didn’t manage to pull it together into something that worked. The story is almost insultingly simple in some places and plot developments are pulled out of the writers’ arses as they see fit. Halfway through the film Azur meets the nanny again and it turns out she’s the richest woman in Jeddah – but we had nothing to foreshadow this or make it in any way believable (if she’s so rich, why was she his poor-as-dirt nanny at the start of the movie?). At the end of the film, we’re faced with an unsolvable conundrum (who should the princess marry of the two boys?), and then literally five whole minutes later, the princess conveniently remembers that she has a best friend who can marry the other one, so we spent quite a long time wondering over essentially nothing. And several times he just happens to walk into the next plot point a minute after it’s mentioned. He gets off the boat and pretty much straightaway meets the only other Frenchman in Arabia, then he walks straight into an important shrine which contains something he’ll need to find the princess – and he’s the only person who’s ever worked out how to actually get the item and does so within a minute.

I mentioned the setpieces looking very nice, but I don’t think I mentioned that I never felt like it was a real place. I was never transported by the images to Arabia. I remember the film as mostly one disjointed image after another, especially when the colours change abruptly. I feel as if this could be rectified by having the images actually linking together a bit more, so that we have more of a sense where things fit in the world. But basically he seems to cover a lot of land in a very short space of time, in general, and this was annoying.

The characters were quite good – they could be interesting or funny at times. Not the main character, who’s bland and righteous, but the film has a colourful supporting cast, including the racist Frenchman who complains about being stuck in this foreign country, the nanny, and the princess of the city, who is actually a child who yearns for adventure. She was easily the best part of the film. I think it’s a shame there weren’t even more colourful characters, because this just wasn’t enough.

Oh and one more thing – the film did the most annoying thing with the dialogue, and its languages: most of the film was in French (you can also watch it in English or with subtitles), but half the characters speak in unsubtitled Arabic. It’s never a barrier to understanding, because you always know what’s happening and they only ever use incidental language, but for heaven’s sake, you might as well subtitle it at least (especially given that all the main characters understand both). This just cemented the film in my mind as pretentious as well as all the other complaints.

It’s just not Ghibli at all. Moving on.

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