Review: Tales of the Night (2011)
Cobbled together from the television series Dragons and Princesses, Tales of the Night is the first foray into 3D for veteran animator Michel Ocelot, who made his name on his 1998 feature debut Kirikou and the Sorceress. It’s an interesting case; traditionally “retrofitted” stereoscopy—where films are shot in two dimensions and later converted to three in post-production—has been seen as a studio’s efforts to cash in on the fad and has been widely rejected by audiences (Clash of the Titans, ahem). Here, however, the silhouette form of the animation could be said to lend itself to such a conversion, its clear distinctions between foreground and background perhaps more suited to a conversion. Taking five of the television episodes and one new story, Tales of the Night imposes a nicely metatextual framing narrative of three animators trying to decide which story they will tell. We follow their imaginations through African jungles, Aztec cities, underground caverns, and nightmarish forests.
Ocelot and his team create worlds of magisterial colour, giving us from the dazzling twilight of the very first tale locations steeped in a sense of cultural variation and internationality.
I feel full disclosure at this point would be only fair: Tales of the Night represents just the second time I have donned the polarising spectacles before sitting down to a movie, the first having been Hugo. Limited though my experience may be, I count myself a sure 3D cynic. The majority declared Hugo the best use of the technique yet, certainly the best since Avatar; if that’s the best it can do, I feel confident knowing I’ve not missed much. Nevertheless, there is a certain efficiency to Tales of the Night’s stereoscopy, giving the completely 2D figures a sense of relative distance and depth that works well in enriching their visual world to a degree. That said, experiencing the film without the spectacle-added dimension will likely be no less wowing; the real aesthetic impact here comes from the contrast between the shadowed characters and the vibrantly textured backgrounds. Ocelot and his team create worlds of magisterial colour, giving us from the dazzling twilight of the very first tale locations steeped in a sense of cultural variation and internationality. It’s a film of considerable ocular appeal, each frame composed with a richness and beauty so involving that it often draws more attention than the stories themselves.
Perhaps that’s Tales of the Night’s most serious issue: its storytelling, while efficient and never not entertaining, is nothing worthy of much remark. These are tales of princes and princesses, mystical beasts and magical objects, bravado and renown, the kind of typical children’s fare by now so often done that the opportunity of originality has long since faded. While one story boasts a hilariously subversive conclusion that might be the high point of the film as a whole, in general there is little here that hasn’t been seen before time and again. Even so, the shortness of each sequence, the pleasantness of the interim scenes, and the assured sense of comedy that runs throughout keep things fresh and interesting, never leaving us too long in the throes of a dull narrative. Adults and children alike should find enough to enjoy across these adventures, though in very separate doses; the film never manages that all-too-rare brand of family film humour that appeals to young and old without pandering in turn to each age group. The framing narrative, for instance, is something kids will likely be bored by, but even its comparatively dull palette seems to knowingly acknowledge this.
…the shortness of each sequence, the pleasantness of the interim scenes, and the assured sense of comedy that runs throughout keep things fresh and interesting, never leaving us too long in the throes of a dull narrative.
The stories’ shortcomings aside, there are many moments in Tales of the Night where it hits a charming level of maturity, finding a moral to convey and actually doing so effectively. The episodic structure contributed by its reforming a television series is easily spotted herein; each episode has a clear message to tell, and some are far more successful than others. Certain segments’ relative strengths do create something of an uneven finished product, but they do so with an appreciably touching fervour that lends it a heartfelt tone. These are chiefly minor moral standpoints, but they say enough about social pressure, romance, and the oddity of humanity to allow them to neatly sidestep the potential dangers of patronisation and the kind of down-talking condescension common employed in such films.
Despite an episodic nature and traditional storytelling that may make it a little forgettable, Tales of the Night is wholly amiable and enjoyable to experience, a delightful if straightforward retelling of familiar scenarios through its own unique animation style. A complete pleasure to behold that offers much in the way of humour for just about every age, it’s a charming and witty way to while away an afternoon.