Review by William J. Hammon, Creator of I Actually Paid to See This blog
The final day of the Annecy showcase features a quartet of films set around the four seasons. Written and directed by Pierre-Luc Granjon and Antoine Lanciaux, this French-Canadian series funded by the National Film Board of Canada is a fairy tale told in four parts (in the films) over the course of six years (for us humans). A princess falls in love with a bear. An elephant and a hedgehog playfully bicker. A royal family teaches children about the realities of life. A devious storyteller plots a path to glory. The cast is a veritable who’s who of Canadian voice talent, including half the players from the TV show Arthur and the original Tender Heart Care Bear. This seasonal celebration is a great mixture of comedy, fantasy, and tremendous stop-motion animation.
For those interested in these films beyond the We Are One Festival, they are available to purchase on DVD or to download from the National Film Board’s website.
Leon in Wintertime
The grand tale begins just before Christmas, as a traveling storyteller regales a crowd inside castle walls about an ogre that likes to eat children. With a trademark rhyme of “1-2-3, it’ll be thee,” the man, Bonifacio, points his finger at a young girl in a hood, claiming the ogre will come for her and devour her.
Amused at the story but fearing nothing, the girl, later identified as the king’s daughter, Princess Molly, buys a jar of honey from an anthropomorphic bear named Leon. He is the hero of this part of the story. Orphaned and raised by beekeepers, Leon faces an identity crisis because of his animal nature. Still, he befriends Molly, and even finds a key to the king’s treasures. When Bonifacio conspires with the ogre to kidnap Molly, it is Leon who braves the harsh cold and winter snows (along with a jubilant elephant named Hannibal and a sarcastic hedgehog called Poppety) to save her.
Created in 2007, the film is a delightful fractured fairy tale rendered in amazing stop-motion puppetry. Of particular note artistically, many of the scenes are framed to look like medieval tapestries, and the filmmakers have a lot of fun with scale. For instance, while working for Bonifacio as a sideshow attraction, Leon, who’s only eight years old in this story, is mocked by a knight for looking like a bear. The knight towers over him, but when Leon asserts his self-worth, he grows to five times the size of his opponent, tackling him easily. Even the film’s setting is nonconforming, as wide shots show Molly and her father with giant heads poking out of the castle windows, nearly casting the entire town in shadow. Inside, the king climbs ridiculous stairs and slides down numerous poles just to go from one room to another. It’s clear the animators had a lot of fun with their world-building.
The character design itself is also something fairly amazing, and the fantasy influences are palpable. Molly, with her cape as she mingles in the town evokes Disney’s Jasmine crossed with Little Red Riding Hood. Bonifacio wears a wolf pelt as his coat, so that when he turns his back to the camera, all you can see is the animal. One could call him a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or even the Big Bad Wolf given his desire to conquer the princess, but his cowardly nature makes him more a sheep in wolf’s clothing. He tries to come off as intimidating, but mostly he’s just comical and harmless.
As a stand-alone story, this is a joy from beginning to end. As a means to establish a core group of characters for a series, it’s even better. Everyone feels fleshed out with clear motivations and just enough backstory to tell us what is needed without getting bogged down in exposition. It’s more than satisfying by itself, but it’s even more exciting to know there are more adventures to be had.
Molly in Springtime
Two years after the first film, a new story emerges with Molly in Springtime. We rejoin our heroes in Balthazarville (named for Molly’s father, King Balthazar) as winter comes to a close and they prepare for their Spring Flower Festival, complete with a giant straw man statue to burn (think Wicker Man, only shaped like a cartoon opera diva) and a temporary royal couple. After eating honey pie, Princess Molly is declared the Flower Queen by finding a charm coin in her slice. She chooses Leon as her king.
But just as in the last film, Bonifacio is lurking, as well as telling the actual story, making him a literal unreliable narrator. He steals a magic apple from Poppety (he had one in the previous story as well, but it was destroyed – no word on how he got another one) and uses it to poison the local water supply and blames Leon and his parents’ honey. He then tricks the king into appointing him to the throne, calling himself Quack, as he’s posing as a doctor.
Meanwhile, Molly, now thrust into the hero’s role, befriends her own sardonic hedgehog in the form of Melody, who shows her how to cure the townspeople. Bonifacio is thwarted again, and the kingdom resumes their celebration.
Given that this is aimed at younger children, the simplicity of the story is more than forgivable, but this a slight step back from the previous entry in terms of character and plot. The hardest bit of disbelief to suspend is how easily Bonifacio fools everyone. He looks exactly the same as he did in the previous adventure, only with a strapped-on goatee, yet no one recognizes him. King Balthazar not noticing makes a little bit of sense, as the last film showed him to be a lovable dullard, but everyone else, including the otherwise highly intelligent skeptic Molly? That’s a bridge too far. Mistaken identity can work, and even does in this movie, as Leon helps a sick bear in the forest and later Molly encounters it thinking it’s Leon. In this case, the character models are practically identical. But to not instantly recognize Bonifacio’s wolfish ears just because he wears a fake chin strap? I don’t think so.
Where the film does improve upon its predecessor is in the visuals. The stop-motion improved (I absolutely love the trees in the forest parting like curtains, which they did last time, but it’s much smoother this go round). The animators incorporated a lot more 2D visual effects into the mix this time. There’s a lovely blend of sparkles, bubbles, flower petals, and bees superimposed upon the 3D scene after it’s been shot. It’s a very clever addition to the proceedings, and it looks spectacular, because the contrast between the two styles is so sharp.
Bonafacio in Summertime
The third installment focuses chiefly on our villain, who has upped his rhymes to “7-8-9.” Released in 2011, Bonafacio in Summertime lets the troublesome storyteller take center stage while the animation department ups the ante on the art style significantly.
For the first time, the action takes place outside of Balthazarville, and transitions to the kingdom of Pirouette, the home of Queen Heloise, Molly’s mother. Right off the bat the film subverts fairy tale conventions by having Molly’s parents amicably divorced. Normally in such stories the mother is either dead or a doting wife. Here, it’s admitted that Heloise and Balthazar simply fell out of love, so she moved back to her home kingdom where the magical golden apples grow (now we know where they come from – an awesome way to fix the plot hole that opened the last film), and every summer, Molly comes to visit, this time bringing Leon, Poppety, and Hannibal.
Bonafacio, still on the warpath for his own riches and royalty, has been wooing Queen Heloise with tales of a shepherd who climbed the nearby Mt. Inaccessible (I love this name) and met a fairy. As it turns out, the mountain lives up to its moniker, except for a royal secret held by Heloise herself. Molly, finally recognizing him on sight alone, begs her mother to reject the storyteller’s advances, but in a rather mature turn, Heloise has to see for herself that Bonafacio’s charm campaign is only to learn her secret, leading to rejection, regret, and a fine assertion of personal morals. This eventually leads to a chase up the rock itself, with our heroes both trying to stop Bonafacio and save him from a perilous fate.
The quality of the animation is really ratcheted up with this entry, as lighting effects bring vibrant doses of color to nearly every scene. Also, the new settings provide ample opportunity for new angles to the established format, including more curtain/gear-esque movements of trees, a 2D moon with an animated face, and a powerful thunderstorm that makes you feel like you’re in the moment with them. In fact, quite possibly the most noticeable evolution in the animation is with the sheer size and scope of the water effects, with the storm being the most obvious example.
Poppety in the Fall
The final chapter in this wonderful tale, from 2012, departs from the conventions of the other three right from the beginning, as our resident comedian, Poppety the hedgehog (Arthur Grosser, who sounds so much like Albert Brooks it’s uncanny) narrates the opening instead of Bonafacio, who has disappeared since his last plot on Mt. Inaccessible was foiled. Poppety doesn’t like telling stories, and without Bonafacio, there are apparently no stories to tell, as King Balthazar becomes deathly ill from sheer boredom. The comedy only heightens as Leon, Molly, and Leon’s adoptive parents, Mr. and Mrs. Martin, can only come up with the most mundane of activities in hopes of cheering him up (chopping wood, jigsaw puzzles, and knitting).
Meanwhile, Poppety and Melody are on the hunt for Bonafacio, in hopes he will resume his role as a storyteller. Despite all his schemes, his talent is undeniable among the group, which I think is a tremendous touch. Even a scoundrel can be a force for good. They chase him through the woods, which are covered in shades or yellow, orange, and brown for the autumn and shot with much wider landscapes (every installation of this story has unique animation touches that are just a sight to behold). They find him hiding up a tree, ashamed to show his face. Not because of his past crimes, mind you, but because he touched a unicorn horn, and it has transformed him into the wolf he embodied in costume. With the help of the learned Ms. Jeanette (introduced in the third film), they search for The Belly of the Earth, a literal white whale who holds the key to all stories, so Bonafacio can make amends, but she only tells her secrets if they tell her theirs.
The C-plot focuses on Hannibal the elephant, who is beside himself with grief. The film opens with him finding a dead fish, whose passing leaves behind a young goldfish that Hannibal takes upon himself to raise. Leon and Poppety have to comfort him but also explain the nature of mortality, a mature theme that shows the filmmakers give their young audience a ton of intellectual credit. It’s that same loving verisimilitude that you often see in Laika Studios films like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, and it’s truly beautiful. To grant validity to the fears and sadness that all children experience is one of the most touching things animation can do.
In addition to the fine visuals and strong comedy, the film goes out of its way to tie up most of the loose ends from the previous films, including Bonafacio’s greed, the ties that bind all the families, and even Leon’s true parentage and past, ending on about as happy a note as it can without becoming too preachy. If there’s anything to bemoan, it’s the fact that Queen Heloise is the only major character from the series who doesn’t make an appearance. I’m not saying she and Balthazar should have reconciled; in fact that would be too cheesy. But I’d have liked to see some acknowledgement of the character and her importance to the overall epic.
Still though, this has been an amazing journey of fantasy, mirth, and first rate animation. The National Film Board of Canada is one of the best at funding the talents of their artists, churning out incredible animated shorts year after year, many of which have been recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’s only fitting for Annecy’s showcase to conclude with a tremendous tale told right to help close the book on the We Are One festival.