Hidden Treasures: Azur & Asmar: The Princes' Quest
Azur & Asmar: The Princes’ Quest is one of the most beautiful animated films I have ever seen. This is not surprising – it comes from Michel Ocelot, who’s 1999 film Kirikou & the Sorceress was also stunning. The difference between the two films, and the aspect that ultimately makes Azur & Asmar aesthetically superior, is CGI – Ocelot utilizes it brilliantly in this film to create cel-shaded characters to act in his symmetric, hand-drawn world. The characters seem to fit more now, and stand out more starkly – but it is still ultimately the backgrounds and set pieces that steal the show. I can talk about it, but I can never truly convey the amount of beauty contained in the countless brightly colored gardens, Arabian palaces, mountain paths, bazaars, and temples. The purist might complain that the movies style, over-all, is more in the way of a painting then a piece of animation – but he’d be doing it between breaths.
All this serves to enhance the story, which is endearing and feels authentic as a fairy tale (make no mistake, that is what the film is intended to be), but is often in danger of becoming mawkish and belabored. Azur is a young, rich French child who spends his first few years of life living with his Indian Nanny and her son, Asmar, and grows up thinking of them as his mother and his brother. The nanny entertains Azur & Asmar with stories of the Djinn Fairy, a captive princess from her (consistently unnamed) homeland who is awaiting her rescue-and-marriage at the hands of a brave prince. Azur’s father grows to vehemently dislike the close relationship his son has to the two foreigners, and sends him away to live in another part of the country with a somber tutor. After Azur leaves, the nanny is fired and ordered to leave the house, in one of the most heart-breaking renditions of this familiar scene I’ve yet to witness (“Everything in this house is mine.”). Years later, the now adult Azur decides to travel to his nurses homeland in order to rescue the fairy that he grew up hearing stories about.
A lot can be – and has been – made of the stories commentary on discrimination and social status. These are the film’s versions of the morals that all fairy-tales are inevitably shackled with, but they are presented with taste and – at times – surprising subtlety. Azur and Asmar are two typical protagonists – a mixture of the bland, cipher-like heroes of Golden Age Disney and the cunning (but equally bland) heroes found in fairy tales the world over. They are surrounded, in true cartoon fashion, by a menagerie of more exuberant personalities – a dishonest but well-meaning beggar named Crapoux, the strong-willed nanny (whose name is a small spoiler and thus will not be brought up), and the learned and beautiful Princess Shamsous-Sabah.
The characters move like marionettes and look starkly realistic compared to the gaudy backgrounds, which aids the movies air of fantasy more the any details of plot ever could. This helps the film in others ways as well – there are several scenes that are just a little too out-of-proportion with the fantastic tone, and this issue would me multiplied tenfold with Disney-style “full” animation.
The film received an English dub that is more then passable, though a little clunky in parts (Nigel Lamberts crow-voiced Crapoux is a personal favorite). The French version is available for all who wish to use it, but the dialogue that sounds bad in the English version is not much better there, and I think the movie’s mood benefits immensely from being watched in your own language. The movie was released with little fanfare into America back in 2009, but has met with critical acclaim wherever it went (see above). A good film for children and adults alike, specifically recommended to anyone who liked Kirikou.