Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998) *available with English dub

Posted by on Dec 12, 2011 in Foreign | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Lots of animated nudity, kind of like a cartoon version of National Geographic.

When Kirikou and the Sorceress was released, several countries and their shortsighted officials concocted a ridiculous controversy that barred it from their borders. Even the overseas countries that allowed it had a miniscule number of screenings and its VHS/DVD release wasn’t much better. To say it has a cult or under-the-radar following would be a vast overstatement. Yet, in France and Belgium (its birthplace), the film yielded loads of merchandise, a few awards, a 2007 musical production, and a respectable family following. If you set aside the visual faux pas and give it a chance, this production based on a West African folktale will surprise you and won’t turn children into sex addicts – they probably won’t even blush.

The movie opens on a pregnant Kirikou2woman’s stomach. Within it, we soon hear, resides an infant child that wishes to come out. How do we know this? Why, the child tells us, of course. This self-sufficient child crawls out, disconnects his umbilical cord, bathes himself, and announces the birth of Kirikou (Theo Sebeko). Excited to be a part of this world, Kirikou asks his mother (Kombisile Sangweni) if he can see his father and uncles. Unfortunately, she says, an evil sorceress has devoured all of the village’s male figures save one: her youngest brother, who will soon meet the same demise trying to defeat the sorceress. Without fear, Kirikou bolts off to help his uncle (Fezele Mpeka) in battle. The slinky, gold-covered sorceress (Antoinette Kellermann), with eyes of fire and hair of Medussa, has forced poverty upon the villagers by stealing their water, demanding their gold, and eating their men.

When Kirikou learns of this, he begins a series of adventures to save the village’s children from temptation, release the curse from their spring water, and take away the sorceress’s powers. With his Mohawk hairdo and curious disposition, Kirikou is constantly asking questions and speaking his mind. He asks so many questions, in fact, that only the Wise Man in the Mountain (Mabutho Sithole) can answer them. The infant’s journey to the wise man, who resembles the Wizard of Oz, feels a little bit like The Hobbit as Kirikou fends off hordes of animals and some technological minions, all while making his way through dark tunnels.

It sounds harmless enough, right? Perhaps even entertaining? Well it is, but certain viewers failed to see past the village’s bare-breasted women and birthday-suited protagonist. I never thought an infant’s genitals could create such a fuss. Honestly, after the first few minutes I didn’t even think about the animated characters’ wardrobe (or lack thereof). The bare-chested women are not sexualized or meant to divert attention away from the story, but are presented in a natural, matter-of-fact way. Like the real-life African villages inhabited by women such as these, the film shows a myriad of body types within the village dominated by resilient, hard-working women. Nonetheless, the nudity enraged some distributors, who requested French director Michel Ocelot add pants and bras. Ocelot thankfully refused, wanting to stay faithful to the African culture.

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I wouldn’t exactly call the animation  “sexy,” either. In fact most would probably find it “dated,” “crude,” or “unrealistic.” The movie is characterized by colorful two-dimensional animation as opposed to the three-dimensional trend made popular by Pixar (you can imagine Super Mario Bros. instead of Halo if you like). It doesn’t mean the movie looks “worse.” In fact this lends itself much better to the story, allowing animators to incorporate elements of African architecture, art, pottery, calligraphy, clothing, and hairstyles. Ocelot clearly grew an attachment to African lore – as seen by his subsequent films including the 2005 sequel Kirikou and the Wild Beasts – and used the fascination of several French painters with African art for inspiration. The backgrounds seem mostly inspired by the French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau (known for his primitive style), with elements also pointing to Egyptian and Asian renderings. But Ocelot insists these are not picturesque images of “the exotic,” but a beautiful cross-section of the African landscape and their people.

Though the 70-minute story unfolds like a few of Aesop’s Fables tied together, kids might not pick up on all the life lessons. One they’ll certainly empathize with is Kirikou’s small stature. Even for an infant, Kirikou is small, and he wants nothing more than to be big. If his adventures teach us anything, it’s that his size should be embraced, because that’s the only reason he’s able to save the village and its residents. Coupled with his speed and smarts, villagers even compose a theme song for the tiny hero, labeling him “Tiny but mighty” and “Small in size but very wise.”

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