Toon causes stir for U.S. auds

PARIS — Disney’s symbol-laden “The Chronicles of Narnia” isn’t the only film delivering lessons in life to kids this holiday season. The E5.2 million ($6.2 million) animated feature “Kirikou and the Wild Beasts” opened Dec. 7 in Gaul to excellent reviews and enthusiasm from its target audience of 3- to 12-year-olds. It was a strong third at the box office behind Hollywood juggernauts “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and “Chicken Little.”

But despite pic’s positive message emphasizing courage and thoughtful reflection, this is one pic the religious right probably won’t be lining up to see. Seven years ago, major distribs in Britain and the U.S. reluctantly passed on its predecessor, “Kirikou and the Sorceress,” a box office phenom in Gaul and beyond and winner of 11 top prizes at animation fests around the globe.

All agreed that the debut film by helmer Michel Ocelot, a Frenchman who grew up in Africa, was enchanting and beautifully animated. There was just one problem. Its thimble-sized hero Kirikou, a clever toddler who saves his African village from drought, was as naked as the day he was born, as were his friends. Worse, his mother and the other village women all were unabashedly bare from the waist up.

Major English-speaking territories all nixed the pic. Eventually, the British Film Institute gave the film a few screenings in the U.K., while in the U.S. specialist distrib Artmattan released it to an small but appreciative African-American audience.

Artmattan didn’t even bother to get the pic rated, instead taking the unrated arthouse route with the movie — all nine prints. “There would have been no point getting a PG-13 rating — this is a movie for young kids,” says Artmattan prez Reinaldo Barroso-Spech.

Despite extensive publicity after it won jury prizes at the Chicago Intl. Children’s Film Festival, when the pic screened in a movie theater in the city some audience members still took offense. “One schoolteacher who came with her class stood up in the middle and marched them all out,” recalls Barroso-Spech.

Produced by Les Armateurs, producers of hit Gallic toon “The Triplets of Belleville,” the pic fared better in parts of the world where breasts are less of an issue, doing boffo biz in Italy, Spain, Japan and Norway.

The new “Kirikou and the Wild Beasts” poses a new dilemma for distribbers — since the brand is so obviously a commercial success. Over the past seven years “Kirikou” has never gone away: In Gaul, DVD and book sales have been constant, spreading Kirikou’s fame among younger brothers and sisters and priming them for the new movie, which bowed on 333 prints — compared with 60 for the first film.

The second film is on course to better the 1.5 million admissions garnered by the first pic’s six-month run. The new movie’s soundtrack, released globally by Universal, is by world music superstars Manu Dibango, Youssou N’Dour and Rokia Traore, and French stores are groaning under the weight of Kirikou toys.

“Kirikou is in a class of its own,” says Jean-Paul Commin, of France Television Distribution which handles DVD and merchandising rights. “Even the bestselling Disney film only manages to achieve 25%-30% of its ticket sales on DVD — not 50%.”

And the pic isn’t just a French phenom. Many of the first film’s foreign distribs pre-bought the second movie from sales agent Celluloid Dreams, while new territories leapt onto the bandwagon, bringing the total number of foreign territories close to 50.

  • Asia, Japan’s New Select was the only distrib to take the first film. But the second film will be released in South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Celluloid isn’t banking on sales to the U.K. and the U.S. “A breast shouldn’t be an offensive thing,” says Charlotte Mickie, the company’s Toronto-based managing director, “but given the moral climate in America I understand distributors’ misgivings.”

Ocelot has no intention of revising the pic to appease sensitivities in English-speaking countries — even if it were financially feasible. “There’s no way I’ll change it,” says the director. “The women in the film are dressed normally. There would be something unhealthy about ‘clothing’ them. It would destroy the film’s honesty and its beauty.”

Next year Ocelot is likely stir controversy again with his upcoming 3-D feature “Azur and Asmar,” a fable about the bonds between a white boy and a black boy raised by the same woman. Fair warning: “A woman’s breasts are in the opening scene,” the helmer reveals with a chuckle.

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