Azur & Asmar: The Princes' Quest

Azur & Asmar: The Princes' Quest


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

"This film was made in Paris, by people from different backgrounds who all got along well."

You will find this message amidst the closing credits to Michel Ocelot's Azur & Asmar: The Princes' Quest, followed by a list of the 25 different nationalities represented by the film's cast and crew. It is not merely a piece of ethnographic trivia, but a statement that perfectly summarises a film thoroughly committed to the virtues of pluralism and multiculturalism in creating a better world.

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Like Ocelot's breakthrough animated feature Kirikou And The Sorceress (1998), Azur & Asmar employs a fairytale 'quest' frame to explore humankind's twin capacity for shallow prejudice and open-minded wisdom - but where the earlier film reduced our global village to a tiny African community, this latest film is set on a much larger canvas, with a much richer, computer-generated palette. It is a tale of two races, two cultures, two continents, two languages - and of two 'princes' who achieve their regal status through worth rather than birth.

Blonde, blue-eyed baby Azur may live in the country, and the country house, of his father, a wealthy French widower, but he is brought up by his North African wet-nurse Jenane alongside her own baby boy Asmar. Jenane always treats both boys as equals, but their young years and skin-deep differences create rivalries, until eventually Azur's father removes the French boy altogether from the influence of Jenane and her son - by brusquely kicking them off his property.

Now, years later, the adult Azur has all but forgotten the Arabic taught to him by Jenane, but he still remembers her enchanting stories of a beautiful Djinn fairy imprisoned deep within a black mountain - and so he sets off on a quest to liberate and marry her. Shipwrecked on the shores of Jenane's land, mistreated by superstitious locals, and reduced to a lowly beggar, Azur almost abandons all hope from the outset and determines never to look upon the world again, until a chance encounter with his fellow countryman, the narrow-minded arch-cynic Crapoux, guides him to the nearby medina, whose many sensory pleasures Azur can appreciate even with his eyes closed.

There he is reunited with Jenane, now a rich merchant, and resumes his quest, with useful advice from the Jewish scholar Yadoa, the precocious Princess Chamsous Sabah (herself, like the Djinn fairy, held as a cloistered prisoner against her will), and even from Crapoux. But will Azur be helped or hindered by Asmar, who is also seeking to free the fairy? And will they all be able to deliver the city from its blind prejudices and tendencies towards self-destruction?

The first thing that will strike any viewer of Azur & Asmar: The Princes' Quest is its dazzling, painterly colours, whose ostentatious exuberance has little parallel in animation. The spice market is a mottled haven of reds, oranges and yellows, Jenane's garden is a sea of soothing greens, the Princess' palace is an Escher-like illusion of blacks and whites, while the Djinn fairy's underground chamber is an all-encompassing shadow-world that suddenly explodes into a display of every colour under the sun.

Indeed colour forms a central motif in the story, starting with the difference in the hue of the boys' skin - although when both lads are covered from head to toe in mud, Azur's racist father is unable to tell them apart, and as Jenane will later remark, "their blood is the same colour". The local Africans' superstitions focus upon blue eyes, while Crapoux is terrified of black cats. An early argument between the boys as to which is the more handsome (and whose country is superior) is followed by the vision of a rainbow in the sky. Shortly before Azur is reconciled to his long-lost 'mother' Jenane, his white garments and face are accidentally (but significantly) bespattered by a kaleidoscope of spices.

Yet even as Azur, at his lowest point, feigns blindness to avoid witnessing all the ugliness around him, Ocelot's film deploys its hyperchromatic aesthetic to suggest the very opposite: that beauty, harmony and enlightenment reside in opening one's eyes and mind to the brilliant variety that the world has to offer - including, paradoxically, ugliness itself. Crapoux may seem ridiculous when he complains that the medina's exquisite dye markets "don't have grey" - but Ocelot's egalitarian vision can happily accommodate even the perspective of so absurdly blinkered a character, and in the end revere the opinion of one "who thinks differently" alongside everyone else's. In this moral landscape, you see, the shades of grey are just as essential to the overall ideological spectrum as the most eye-goggling primary colours.

Set against such lavish backgrounds, Ocelot's characters can at times seem a little bland - an impression that is not aided by the relatively inchoate way in which they (and more particularly their costumes) have been drawn, making them two-dimensional not just in the literal sense. For some, this visual contrast between setting and person, though a familiar feature in much Japanese animation or indeed in video games, may prove a somewhat grating stylisation in what is otherwise a true feast for the eyes - but Ocelot has so captivating a story to tell that such quibbles are quickly left behind.

Though Azur and Asmar's adventures unfold in the Middle Ages, they reflect with great intelligence and sensitivity upon issues confronting today's globe: the conflicts that emerge from differences of class, sex, race and religion, and more particularly the divisions between the West and Islam. In his magical, awe-inspiring tale, Ocelot imagines a utopia where such differences might be both acknowledged and embraced in a dance of colour. He also, however, has the good sense to confine such a utopia to a land of dreams and the realms of fairytale – where perhaps, at least until we come to realise that the same fraternal and regal blood courses through all our veins, utopia will always belong.

Reviewed on: 26 Jan 2008
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Azur & Asmar: The Princes' Quest packshot
Two young men with a shared past set out to try and rescue an imprisoned Djinn fairy, learning about themselves in the process.
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Director: Michel Ocelot

Writer: Michel Ocelot

Starring: Steven Kyman, Nigel Pilkington, Suzanna Nour, Nigel Lambert, Leopold Benedict, Frederick Benedict, Imogen Bailey, Emma Tate, Suzanne David, Sean Barrett, Keith Wickham (English voice cast)

Year: 2006

Runtime: 99 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: France, Belgium, Spain


CFF 2007

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If you like this, try:

Kirikou And The Sorceress