The animated 1998 feature "Kirikou and the Sorceress" is no typical kid movie. Based on an African folk tale, it's a mostly nonviolent trek through a land where humans talk and animals don't. Its soundtrack consists entirely of authentic ethnic music composed by Youssou N'dour. In other words, it's the sort of entertainment culturally elevated adults foist on kids who would secretly rather be watching "Pokémon."
French director Michel Ocelot, however, knows that what's good for the young ones should also taste good. His tiny Kirikou is a proud, willful hero whose precociousness easily endears him to viewers of any age. When we first meet Kirikou, he's as yet unborn, a mere fetus calling out from his mother's womb that he's ready to come out now. Told that such an obviously advanced specimen can birth himself, he performs his own delivery, even cutting the cord with his wee hands.
That task dispensed with, the immediately walking and talking sprite concentrates on a more important mission: seeking out the sorceress to learn why she's damned Kirikou's village with a curse that has dried up its waters and caused all its tribesmen to disappear. His quest takes him under the ground and beyond the mountains; all the while, he remains as naked as the day he was first animated.
Though its preoccupation with non-Western aesthetics is unquestionable (preteens may miss the point that the sorceress' miniature minions are not robots but African fetishes), "Kirikou and the Sorceress" is as visually accessible as any DreamWorks product. Its two- and four-legged creatures are drawn in the familiar, two-dimensional style, with thin black brush strokes outlining flat blocks of color. The background paintings, though, alternate between pastoral studies of lush foliage and barren landscapes that place thin, bony trees before glowing horizon lines. The overall effect is one of Ralph Bakshi sharing an easel with Salvador Dali.
The film's central theme -- that the smallest member of a tribe can be the most valuable -- is hardly new. But the narrative's episodic structure owes less to the cliffhangers of afternoon TV than to the centuries-old customs of folk fiction; after all, the cornerstone of storytelling has always been the query, "And then what happened?"
Though Ocelot's approach is traditional, his ideology is modern in the extreme. There are no forces of pure good or evil at work on his African savanna, just creatures whose individual passions lead them to make conflicting choices.
Getting to that revelation requires patience; the film's stately pace makes it feel longer than its 78 minutes. If you know a child who might benefit from remaining seated to the end, may we suggest that a Pokémon toy makes a fine reward?
Screenings 11 am Saturday and Sunday Aug, 5 and 6; Enzian Theater, Maitland; $6 (includes pizza).
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