Dilili is a charmingly unconventional heroine: a 6-year-old Kanak girl from New Caledonia who dresses like Shirley Temple and speaks like royalty. And Paris, glittering with haute couture and a shiny new Eiffel Tower, never looked more splendid than it did around the turn of the 20th century, when Michel Ocelot’s new computer-animated feature is set. So why does “Dilili in Paris” feel like such a waste of both of these appealing assets?
Ocelot no doubt intends to set some kind of positive example with his latest adventure, the first to take place in the marvelous city he calls home, but the storytelling is clumsy and the visuals surprisingly off-putting, transforming the flights of fancy for which he is most beloved into a ponderously overcooked mystery about one girl’s fight for respect and gender equality in the early 1900s. It’s a complicated issue with an ugly past, which Ocelot has the courage to acknowledge — the film introduces young Dilili topless, chopping vegetables outside a straw hut in the park while well-dressed Parisians look on — but can’t elegantly reduce to something kids can comprehend. (How to explain the disgraceful concept of “human zoos” to preschool audiences?)
The next time we see Dilili, she’s wearing a white dress and a yellow ribbon in her hair, speaking prim and proper English (a sprightly Angelina Carballo performs Prunelle Charles-Ambron’s lines for the American dub) to Orel (Jason Kesser), a blue-eyed delivery boy who serves as her companion-cum-accomplice-cum-chauffeur for the rest of the film. With his ice-blue eyes and slender physique, Orel is meant to be one of those androgynously beautiful young men the likes of which populate so many anime films (“Vampire Hunter D,” “Howl’s Moving Castle”), but instead, he looks like a crude CG rendering of the way Michael Jackson must have seen himself.
It’s not at all clear what Orel’s doing in the story, or why these two become friends, but his tricycle nicely serves to conduct Dilili around Paris, which she explores from top to bottom — quite literally, as the story reaches from the heights of Montmartre (and above the city’s rooftops in a primitive airship) to the underground network of catacombs and sewers (explored via a Ludwig-like swan boat). Ocelot populates this whirlwind tour with cameos from historical and cultural figures of the time, most of them names unfamiliar to youngsters not raised in France: notable anarchist Louise Michel, operatic soprano Emma Calvé, theatrical megastar Sarah Bernhardt, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Marie Curie, “Gigi” novelist Colette, to focus only on the women.
Evidently (because the crimes are only described, never shown), Paris is plagued by a wave of kidnappings as young girls are snatched from the streets by a cult of nose-ring-wearing individuals who call themselves the “Male Masters.” Their misogynist plans are … insane, to say the least. But if Ocelot was determined to be revisionist, why not have Dilili fight for other feminist advances, like the right to vote (which France withheld from women until 1944) or permission to “dress as men” (an outdated bylaw, enforced for years, forbade Parisian women from wearing pants and wasn’t struck down until 2013)?
Here’s the thing about Ocelot, who is regarded as a legend in the world of French animation, lesser known but still well-respected stateside: The old-school toonsmith has crafted his reputation in much the same way he does his films — which is to say, by hand, working in a meticulous style that lovingly echoes the very origins of cinema, often reaching back even farther, to a time when fantastical stories were told by projecting silhouettes onto screens. Ocelot got his start doing delicate cut-paper shorts (such as “The Three Inventors”) and gradually expanded into hand-drawn children’s stories (“Kirikou and the Sorceress”) and computer-rendered fairy tales (“Azur & Asmar”), but it’s those primitive formats that suit his aesthetic best.
“Dilili in Paris” is by far his most ambitious film, calling for elaborate re-creations of belle epoque Paree (the title is cuter when the city is pronounced the French way, rhyming with the name of its tiny heroine) and a cast of hundreds, a great many of them inspired by famous artworks of the era (lifted from sketches by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the like). But it’s also appallingly ugly, featuring stiff, marionette-like figures against garish, badly rendered backdrops — flat photos before which the CG puppets move, like brain-dead avatars marching through a Google Maps maze.
If this were a children’s television program we were talking about, or some straight-to-video quickie, it would be easy to be more forgiving: Clunky animation, canned voices and connect-the-dots plotting play just fine to preschoolers on the small screen, but our eyes, ears and imaginations expect more from a feature, and this one irritates each of those potential receptor points. Even the film’s didactic spirit grates, as when Orel is bitten by a rabid dog so that the characters might seek a vaccine from Louis Pasteur. Later, Dilili stumbles upon Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir painting side by side en plein air. She admires Monet’s “Water Lilies,” then turns her attention to Renoir’s “Dance in the Country” (painted more than two decades earlier) and exclaims, “Why, you are not painting the same thing at all!” prompting a reductive art-history lesson from Calvé.
But where was Ocelot when they were teaching Animation 101? Surely such an accomplished visual craftsman must know that posture and movement are key to conveying character; it’s not enough to reproduce images from art history. In its native France, “Dilili” was released in stereoscopic 3D, which may have helped things look less wooden, but it feels as if the director stuck to a style that works well in silhouette — where characters typically appeal in profile, and bend only at elbow, knee and waist. In any case, it hurts the brain, which is clearly the opposite of what Ocelot intended. “Dilili” is so clumsily constructed that Calvé is obliged to make an awkward encore over the end credits, reappearing in order to explain things that happened but the film was unable to show.