France suddenly drawn to cartoons

A dozen feature-length films in the pipeline

PARIS — After years of being French cinema’s poor relation, toons have taken in Gaul.

In a year in which “Persepolis” is repping France at the Oscars, at least a dozen feature-length animated films are in the pipeline.

But as Pathe recently had the misfortune to discover with “Go West: A Lucky Luke Adventure,” a popular cartoon character is just like a bankable movie star — sometimes they bomb at the box office.

Luckless Luke limped his way to a paltry $1.3 million in his first frame on French screens, while “The Golden Compass” and “Enchanted” gobbled up the box office coin.

“We’re a bit shaken, we can’t really explain what happened,” said a Pathe exec last week.

Despite the “Luke” setback, plenty of feature toons are in the pipeline.

Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp, cash rich after its stock market flotation earlier this year, is behind three: Sequels two and three of Besson’s “Arthur and the Invisibles,” France’s largest-grossing pic last year, and “Un Monstre a Paris,” marking “Shark Tales” helmer Eric “Bibo” Bergeron’s big return home to his native Gaul.

“We’re seeing a golden age of animation, and I’m very happy about that,” says Bergeron who, following a path well-trod by other French animators, spent eight years working in Hollywood at a time when no French company was ready to sink big bucks into an animated film.

Things are different today, with backers falling over themselves to secure the hottest projects, and jobs in the buzzing animation sector up 72% over the past two years.

Gaumont is bidding to go head to head with Hollywood at the 3-D game with the $44 million “Rock the Boat,” a critter tale touted by inhouse producer Franck Chorot as “Some Like It Hot” set on Noah’s Ark.

“We have the animation talent in France, and we can produce for less,” says Chorot, ” so it makes sense to do it.”

“You can’t necessarily do the same things; you are more limited,” says Bergeron. “But there is more craft involved in France, and people here are imaginative at finding solutions.”

Toons tend to play well in Gaul; the arty French love Hayao Miyazaki as well as Pixar.

France’s deeper-pocketed film groups aren’t the only ones championing animation. A number of Gallic TV animation companies whose series are enjoying success internationally are also making the leap into feature-length toons.

Futurikon’s $16 million “Dragon Hunters” bows in France in March, while, targeting a slightly older audience, “Les Lascars,” adapted from a popular hip-hop toon series on Canal Plus, will burst onto screens later in the year. Further down the line, Marathon is developing a feature-length version of “Totally Spies,” and Onyx, the sister company of TV toon house Method Films, has a “Skyland” feature in the works. Onyx has also teamed with Fidelite to co-produce Fidelite’s first venture into animation, “La Nuit des enfants rois” adapted from a best-selling French book.

Some French animation is taking an artsier approach, using traditional 2-D animation. Among Pathe’s new projects at the next Cannes Film Market will be “L’Illusioniste,” an animated version of a Jacques Tati script by “Triplettes de Belleville” helmer Sylvain Chomet. Meanwhile, following “Raining Cats and Frogs,” director Jacques-Remy Girerd is producing environmentally themed “Mia and the Migou,” slated for release December 2008, and is also prepping “A Cat’s Life.”

Those earlier films, and Michel Ocelot’s “Kirikou and the Sorceress” did much to launch the current animation wave in France, says Celluloid Dreams’ Hengameh Panahi. “They opened opportunity for others, because they showed that there was an audience for French animation.”

Girerd agrees: “Animation is no longer an isolated genre,” he says. “Today we’re a part of French cinema.”

France’s fondness for graphic novels and its galaxy of well-known cartoon characters also provides a wellspring of familiar material that seems tailor-made for the bigscreen.

But some think you can have too much of a good thing. There are mutterings in the French film biz that at least some companies are headed for collateral damage when the upcoming crop of animated pics hits screens.

“Today there are more films, there is more money, more desire for animation. But we need to stay modest, to do our jobs well,” Girerd says. “We mustn’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

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