France has a long, underappreciated history of animation, from Asterix and Obelix cartoons to surreal illustrations like Fantastic Planet and the melancholic silent comedies of Sylvain Chomet. What the French lack in a Walt Disney, someone who comidfied the craft for the global mainstream, it makes up for with Michel Ocelot, whose work bridges audiences of all ages with striking visuals and themes. His new film, Dilili In Paris, is not a Frozen-like breakout waiting to happen, but it exemplifies Ocelot’s lifetime contributions to a medium that, more and more, settles for fluff.
Dilili In Paris transports viewers to Paris during the Belle Époque, Camille Claudel, Gertrude Stein, the Lumière Brothers, Marie Curie, Marcel Proust, and other great minds on the cusp of the 20th century palled around in salons. Dilili, a young girl from New Caledonia who begins life in a “human zoo” before integrating into society, and Orel, a delivery boy with knowledge of every corner of the city, stumble into the mystery of disappearing girls, who they suspect have been plucked off the street by the “Master Men.” Their investigation becomes a whirlwind tour of Parisian cultural history and a striking condemnation of toxic male behavior, as it becomes clear the kidnapping of bright young minds has everything to do with diversifying power in the country.
Ocelot, who was born in France but spent most of his childhood in Guinea, has spent his career examining cultures and toying with animation techniques. His best known feature, Kirikou And The Sorceress, adapts West African folktales in a way that uses 2D vignettes and rhythmic dialogue to echo the centuries-old traditions of storytelling. Since the 1980s, the animator’s experimented with 3D models, prismatic background work, and silhouette designs that force the viewer to hone in on mouth movements and expressions. He once directed a Björk video, which tells you everything about his creative integrity.
There is no Ocelot “house style” but there is philosophy. In press notes for Dilili in Paris, the animator expresses a fear of setting his story in the Belle Époque as there was little room for representation. (“This had never happened on any of my previous films! It seemed an impoverishment for my audience and for myself,” he says.) His bold choice for Dilili’s aesthetic — which finds 3D character models interacting with photographic backdrops of Paris — was also obvious during the film’s conception: as someone enamored by the city, he saw “nothing to add” to the landscapes.
Dilili in Paris is not Ocelot’s masterpiece. While Dilili beams with infectious enthusiasm, bouncing from front row seats at Moulin Rouge to the underbelly of Paris without missing a beat, the mystery plot often intrudes upon the simple joys of touring France. A scene where Dilili and Orel question Picasso and Cézanne over a missing girl is so dreamy that it’s easy to forget the fact that a kid has been kidnapped. Ocelot’s 3D animation occasionally jerks around like under-funded anime and the translation for the English dub has an odd cadence that doesn’t do Dilili and Orel’s on-paper dynamic justice. The French version would likely play better, but to even smaller audiences.
But Ocelot doesn’t create niche work. Even Dilili in Paris, funneled with the director’s visual obsessions and progressive politics (if one would call wanting women to have an equal stake in this world after centuries of mistreatment by men is “progressive” and not universal), is a fairy tale built out of rousing set pieces and character moments. After a rabid dog sinks his teeth into Orel’s leg, it’s up to Dilili to careen the delivery boy’s tricycle down a steep hill to get him to the hospital. The blur of Parisian apartments as the duo fly down cobble streets is as dynamic as any twisty, turny CG creation pumped out of Pixar.
Asked about his role as an educator to young audiences, Ocelot defined his purpose and legacy in the animation world with even more clarity. He may not be on the same path commercially, but he’s a Walt Disney type.
“I think what separates man from the animals is teaching. Unlike animals, we can assimilate thousands of years of civilisation and progress. I communicate everything that I’ve learned; I sow seeds aplenty. I have already seen some flourish. But of course, this is a show, first I tell a story, an adventure, with surprises, thrills and pleasures.”
Dilili in Paris is opening in select theaters today.