Feature-length toon “U” is a trippy, comical but also very gabby fable about a faintly canine creature’s transition from misunderstood girlhood to first stirrings of romance. Voiced skillfully by name Gallic thesps, pic opened in France Oct. 11 to copious praise from all quarters, is pulling in moppets and their folks, and will enjoy a long life in theaters and on homevideo.
Animated beasties, both cool and cranky, are by prolific French author and illustrator Gregoire Solotareff, who has over 125 picture books to his credit. Though he and co-helmer Serge Elissalde have made a handsome hand-drawn entertainment, some may still level the standard offshore criticism of non-animated Gallic fare: All the characters do is talk.
Mona (voiced by Isild Le Besco) is an orphaned princess who lives in a tower — one that’s strangely larger on the inside than it is on the outside — with two rat-like guardians. When lonely little Mona weeps after cutting her finger, she’s abruptly joined by U (Vahina Giocante), a female unicorn who seems to be her age, or at least her size.
U — as in “unique” and “unicorn” — insists she’s not a guardian angel or a fairy, just a friend who will stick with Mona as long as her playful comfort and support are needed. In no time at all, Mona is a somewhat vain and spacey teenager, whose anthropomorphic adorableness has given way to lanky, enticing limbs. A far more prominent snout offsets impossibly long, luxuriant ears.
Various critter sidekicks and confidants emerge, including the amusing Lazare (Guillaume Gallienne), memorable Mama (Bernadette Lafont) and a group of itinerant musicians. When romance blossoms with a charmingly tentative musical cat (soundtrack composer Sanseverino), Mona’s future is altered and U’s utility thrown into question.
All character design, backgrounds and storyboarding were carried out in France, while mechanical tasks were farmed out to Shanghai, Kiev and Ho Chi Minh City. But Solotareff’s distinctive style survives the translation to screen with, literally, flying colors. Venture is also peppered with sly visual references, from Rembrandt to Jean-Luc Godard by way of Magritte.
Solotareff was a practicing physician before he got into publishing 15 years ago and doesn’t believe in condescending to children. However, for a toon, pic is still very talky, even though much of the dialogue qualifies as witty banter and subversive repartee.
Jazzy violin score co-exists nicely with all the conversation.