‘Animated ‘Azur & Asmar’ is visually flat, yet rich

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, January 8, 2009 11:17am
  • LifeGo-See-Do

If recent 3-D computer-animated films, and the visually rich “Wall-E,” have made the case for a new kind of depth in cartoons, then “Azur &Asmar” goes the other direction.

This movie is flat. Not metaphorically flat, like a Keanu Reeves performance. I mean literally flat.

Director Michel Ocelot (“Kirikou and the Sorceress”) prefers a style that uses silhouettes and cut-outs; imagine something between “South Park” and Matisse’s paper collages. It creates a handsome storybook look — the main draw of this eye-filling movie.

The story itself is a familiar yarn about brotherhood and tolerance. Two boys are raised in a lavish mansion, somewhere in North Africa or the Middle East. Azur is the pale, blue-eyed son of the landowner; Asmar is the dark, brown-eyed son of Azur’s nanny.

Although they are different colors and classes, the two boys grow up in brotherly closeness, entranced by the nanny’s exotic supernatural stories of a far-off land. When the boys are separated for years, their destinies will reunite them in just such a place.

It’s the stuff of ancient fairy tales, complete with secret caverns and enchanted words and a “Fairy of the Djinn” to wave a magic wand over everything.

The film’s message is as spelled-out and secure as any Disney picture, although it takes somewhat longer to get there. While the brown-skinned Asmar is discriminated against in Azur’s world, Azur’s blue eyes cause him to be shunned in Asmar’s land. (Azur pretends to be a blind beggar, so he won’t have to open his eyes and betray himself.)

But the real draw is Ocelot’s use of Arabian-nights visual extravagance. There’s not a drab moment in this movie: Ocelot fills the town market with animals and spice shops and rug displays, and the interiors are explosions of color.

As long as kids are able to dial down expectations of the usual fast-moving, wise-cracking animated film, they should enjoy this one. And if the near-dialogue-free first half of “Wall-E” could do it, “Azur &Asmar” should too.

What about the PG rating? Apparently it’s entirely for the opening scene of Asmar’s mother breast-feeding the infants. Gotta love that ever-vigilant ratings system.

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