Six freshly conceived fairy tales are rendered instantly timeless through Michel Ocelot’s signature silhouette style in “Tales of the Night.” An extension of the shadow-puppet approach employed in “Princes and Princesses,” enhanced this time around by a stereoscopic presentation that aids in separating Ocelot’s distinctive figures from their richly colored backgrounds, project finds the esteemed animator operating well within his comfort zone. As such, the meticulously constructed result feels less like art than a triumph of intricate craftsmanship. Though produced in French, the dialogue-heavy film could easily be translated for export without compromising its visually driven impact.
Although Ocelot has spun his share of feature-length tales (including the “Kirikou” adventures that made him an international name), here he returns to the short-story format with which he began his career, linking half a dozen new fables together via an odd theatrical framing device. Before each tale, a seasoned old screenwriter conspires with a young actor and actress to create amusing proscenium-bound stage shows according to their various whims.
In the first, the actor insists on playing a werewolf, so the trio collaborates to invent a fresh love story around a young man whose curse threatens to shatter his wedding plans. Before taking the stage, the actors research set and costume options, feeding the results into a computer that modifies their silhouettes accordingly. The purpose of these background bits is unclear, other than to connect the episodes and possibly demystify the storytelling process for younger viewers, who could easily be encouraged to create their own tales in the same vein.
The six classically styled stories span geography and time, unfolding in locales from the Caribbean (where a lad named Ti Jean passes a gauntlet of tests in the Land of the Dead) to Africa (where a Tam-Tam drummer overcomes the doubts of his peers and uses his musical gift to save the village). In each case, a young man must face elaborate challenges in order to win the hand of a princess, who may or may not be worthy of his troubles. Though each tale features some sort of twist toward the end, including at least one case in which the hero rejects his romantic trophy outright, it’s hard to imagine even the least jaded auds being surprised by how they turn out.
The best of the lot takes place in the Far East, where rival rulers wager half their kingdoms to show that they can force an honest young stable boy to lie, enlisting a duplicitous princess in a scheme that, while not entirely plausible, conjures surprisingly strong emotions, considering that we are responding to little more than a series of black cutouts against Day-Glo-bright backdrops. However eye-catching, the sets seem like a missed opportunity to sneak in some genuinely impressionistic design elements, though a giant dragon and a number of wild creatures help to break up the sameness found among the human characters.
There’s something wonderfully old-fashioned about Ocelot’s style, which reaches back even before cinema to the classic camera obscura tradition. At the same time, the approach deprives us of the wonderful expressivity most commonly associated with animation, and requires auds to use their imaginations in order to fill in the expressions that silhouettes alone cannot capture. “Tales of the Night” is good enough but not great, more than satisfying its obligations to entertain young viewers without necessarily advancing Ocelot’s abilities. The addition of 3D does not impact the characters themselves, but merely helps to identify where they stand vis-a-vis the various other layers within each frame.