In the grand tradition of Lottë Reiniger this charming French portmanteau animation recounts classic fairytales using cut-out animated silhouettes. Each tale opens with a prologue set inside an old movie theatre wherein young male (Philippe Cheytion) and female (Arlette Mirapeu) actors-cum-animators and their elderly mentor (Yves Barsacq) programme elaborate hi-tech devices to think up stories, costumes and music for the plays that they then perform, assisted by a supporting cast of supposedly programmable robots.
In the first story, “La princesse des diamants”, a young prince must retrieve an array of missing diamonds lying somewhere in the grass in order to free a princess held captive inside a secret palace. Many other princes have tried before and should he fail, the prince risks sharing their fate being transformed into an ant. Then the second story, “Le Garcon des figues” finds a young boy gifted with a magical fig tree. He presents a fresh fig to the beautiful Queen Hatshepsut who finds it so delicious she rewards him with ten gold and ten bronze coins. Thereafter the boy brings her another fig every day, each more scrumptious than the last, as his rewards grow more and more extravagant. The jealous royal steward does his best to see the boy comes to a nasty end, but his cunning ruse backfires spectacularly.
“La sorcière” concerns an “abominable” witch who lives inside an impregnable fortress. The King offers his daughter in marriage to whomever can rid him of this monster. A simple farm boy resolves to accomplish this task and endures the taunting of the local peasantry while watching prince after prince fail to breach the lair of the masked witch. Cannons and battering rams fail as her pet dragon regurgitates their cannonballs. Special defences combat fire and elevate her castle a few hundred more feet to elude their battle towers. Eventually the boy gets inside simply by knocking at the witch’s door and asking politely! After touring her realm of mechanical wonders, he politely declines the king’s offer and marries the beautiful and perfectly nice, young witch.
“La Manteau de la vieille dame” takes place in 19th century Japan wherein the intricate visuals mimic engravings by the celebrated artist Katsushika Hokusai. An elderly widow named Oiko is targeted by a crafty thief who offers a piggy-back ride back to her house, then threatens to leave her in the woods unless she hands over her valuable coat. But the old gal is exceptionally strong. Refusing to loosen her stranglehold, she forces the hapless thief to carry her on an exhausting jaunt across the whole country, while she recites poetry in praise of the sumptuous scenery. Story number five, “La Reine cruelle et le montreur de fabulo”, is set in the far flung future of the year 3000. A young exhibitor spurns a tyrannical queen’s request to hand over his amazing singing alien, the Fabulo. Nevertheless he boldly declares his intention to win her hand in marriage or else die trying. Big mistake, since the queen uses an omnipresent satellite that locates then disintegrates every prince with an eye on her kingdom. Eventually, the hero succeeds by means of ingenious disguise, hiding in the one place the queen’s satellite would never think to look.
Finally the sixth story, “Prince et princesse” finds our storytellers reincarnated as a classically besotted Prince and Princess whose first kiss calamitously results in him being turned into a toad and her into a slug. Braving their mutual disgust, the hapless lovers discover repeatedly kissing only turns them into a succession of other animals.
Michel Ocelot began making short animated films in the mid-Seventies, but it was his feature debut, the African-themed Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998) that really put him on the map. Well regarded across Europe and Japan where Studio Ghibli’s Isao Takahata supervised local dubs of Ocelot’s work, the film was less admired in the UK and USA following curious criticism of the nudity featured therein, which was never intended as erotic and acceptable within its cultural context. Princes and Princesses was sold as Ocelot’s follow-up feature, but was actually culled from episodes of his 1989 television series Ciné si (“Cinema If”). In fact, one or two stories did not make the cut including “Icare”, a retelling of the mythological story of Icarus, and “On ne saurait penser à tout” whose plot details remain undisclosed.
Ocelot’s deft handling ensures these classic tales retain their romance and remain warm, witty and wise. Of the individual stories, “La Reine cruelle et le montreur de fabulo” is perhaps the weakest, being somewhat meandering with a punch line unworthy of its elaborate build-up, but even this retains a great deal of charming, evoking the whimsical science fiction comics of Jean “Moebius” Giraud. All the other stories are eloquent and engaging, particularly the slapstick ingenuity of “La sorcière” and the charming “Prince et princesse” which incorporates some delightful transmutations. These lead to such amusing sights as a rhino kissing a flea and an elephant balancing precariously atop a giraffe’s head, before culminating in the prince aghast to find himself turned into a princess while his beloved is quietly looking forward to living life as a prince. A neat little discourse on gender roles.