Le Roi et l’Oiseau (The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird)

“The King and the Bird” is the literal translation of this animated masterpiece by Paul Grimault, considered the greatest animated French film by some, and the greatest of any country ever by others. It has had many titles: The King and the Mockingbird, The King and Mr. Bird, Mr Bird to the Rescue and Adventures of Mr. Wonderful– though its original title is actually La Bergère et le Ramoneur (The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep.)

Whatever you want to call it, it’s amazing. Gorgeous, fluid animation takes you on a trippy, dreamlike journey through a bizarre kingdom full of wild animals, uncontrollable robots, sad humans and wondrous technology. The story is simple enough: a shepherdess and a chimney sweep, both actually paintings come to life in the King’s chambers, fall in love and flee their rectangular prisons, only to be chased down by the King’s police force. They escape to an underground part of the city, hoping to evade the King’s forces.

Not the most original storyline, of course- but it’s not the plot that makes this film so perfect- it’s the gorgeous art, the slow, surreal pacing, the melancholy score, the unique sensibility not quite captured anywhere else. While Disney was establishing its brand of family-friendly American fare, Grimalut was focused on creating an environment you could get lost in. Many scenes have been echoed subtly and not so subtly in future animated features (The Iron Giant, Wall-E.) It’s easy to see how Le Roi… influenced and shaped the great Miazaki’s own animated masterpieces- his deeply meditative films like My Neighbor, Totoro strongly echo the feeling you get here.

Begun in 1948 yet completed in 1980, Le Roi et l’Oiseau‘s own origin story is fascinating in itself full of false starts and half-assed releases, fights between friends and drama among creatives. This is the definitive version, in French with English subtitles (there’s very little dialogue in the film) and a must-see classic regardless of your age.

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