The King And The Mockingbird (Le Roi et l’Oiseau)

France (1980) Dir. Paul Grimault

French animation is a bit of a niche product internationally, so it is a surprise to learn that one of the biggest influences on Japanese legend Hayao Miyazaki is French animator Paul Grimault. One of the most important figures in French animation, his most famous – and problematic – film is a loose adaptation of The Shepherdess And The Chimney Sweep by Hans Christian Anderson.

In the kingdom of Takicardia, the ruling monarch is the unpopular despotic misanthrope Charles XVI (or as he is referred to Charles V + III = VIII + VIII = XVI), a pot-bellied cross-eyed shrimp whose favourite hobby is hunting. The only one with the front to tell the King to his face he is a bad person and lousy ruler is a brightly coloured bird, father to four young chicks he has to raise alone after the King killed his wife.

That night as the King sleeps, the paintings of a shepherdess and chimney sweep come to life. They are in love but as a statue of a man atop a horse tells them their romance is doomed, a portrait of the King also comes to life, declaring his love for the shepherdess. After distracting the King, the couple escape the castle, getting help from the bird as the King and his police are in hot pursuit.

Just to clarify, that is the King from the painting who is in pursuit of the star-crossed lovers, having dispensed with the real thing via one of his own trap doors, yet somehow nobody notices the difference in height, or that his eyes are now uncrossed (a result of an alteration the real King made to the portrait). It’s a surreal scenario but makes sense when you watch the film – as much as paintings coming to life can make sense!

Of course, Anderson’s original fairy tale is also nonsensical fantasy, with the two lovers being china figurines whilst the antagonist is a wooden model of a Satyr, just one of the many deviations and alterations Grimault made for The King And The Mockingbird. The change in title has a deeper significance relating to the film’s storied production.

Grimault and his long time collaborator, writer Jacques Prévert, actually began working on this film in 1948 under the same title as Anderson’s work, but spiralling costs halted production in 1950. Two years later the film’s producer, André Sarrut, released the unfinished film against the wishes of Grimault and Prévert, causing a huge rift between them.

In 1967, Grimault eventually regained control and ownership of the film, spending the next decade seeking funds in order to finish it, which began in 1977, shortly after which Prévert passed away. It was finally completed in 1979, using 42 minutes of the original footage and 38 minutes of new footage, along with a change in title to distinguish it from the 1952 version.

Depending on how observant you are, spotting the difference between the two sets of footage may not be so easy yet there are rather obvious changes in the texture of the artwork that are a dead giveaway. There is a smoothness to the images and slight drop in detail that is also evident but overall, the match-up is competent and close enough that it doesn’t become an issue.

For a film conceived in 1948, many of the ideas incorporated into the story are way ahead of their time, incurring its labelling as a surreal and absurdist work, yet aside from the idea of paintings coming to life, this is a straightforward social satire on the tyrannical oppression of the lower classes and the cult of personality. The King is a deliberately ludicrous to get this point across as are his hapless sycophantic staff he disposes of at a whim

The role of the shepherdess is essentially as a tool to measure the arrogance and sense of entitlement of the King, believing that anything he desires is his property by virtue of his position as regent. She isn’t fleshed out as a character and neither is the chimney sweep for that matter, but her predicament is enough that we don’t want to see her as the King’s bride, so she serves her purpose in that respect.   

Even though he is not actually a mockingbird (the literal English translation of the title is just “bird”) the charismatic, quick witted and erudite avian is arguably the star of the film, also doubling as the narrator. With his sharp tongue, defiant irreverence and typically French blasé attitude, he has a touch of Sacha Gantry about him but less pompous but still the embodiment of a downtrodden working-class hero – with feathers.    

A product of its (original) era, the animation and artwork is very much from the period where it was taken seriously as an art form, and one can quite easily make comparisons in the character designs and immaculate backgrounds with US contemporaries the likes of Tex Avery, Harman Ising and Max Fleischer. But Gimault infuses enough Gallic flavour to give it that uniquely European feel, along with subtle droll French humour to offset the US inspired slapstick.

While Grimault draws on random influences like Fritz Lang – Takicardia bears a passing resemblance to the austere futuristic city in Metropolis – the steampunk-esque mechanics of the King’s palace and giant robot were the elements that made a young Miyazaki sit up and take notice. Perhaps the most obvious homage Miyazaki paid Grimault can be found in the titular fortress in The Castle Of Cagliostro and in the roof top chases.

From watching The King And The Mockingbird it is not difficult to see Grimault’s influence on other animation giants beyond Miyazaki, no matter how subtle or fleeting it may be. Its esoteric bent aside, this holds up against any US work from the period and still has the power to enchant modern film fans, absolutely undeserving of remaining at its current curio status.