Sorry, I can’t pretend to be objective here. Michel Ocelot’s Tales of the Night is simply a joy—not a perfect film, but a lyrical celebration of art and imagination, its assortment of stories sparkling like a jeweled mosaic.
Of course, it comes to us from abroad (specifically, from France, in a combined effort of NordQuest Films, Studio O, and Studio Canal). No American studio would produce such a film. The animation is simple, low-budget work, relying on lavish artistry rather than cutting-edge technology, much like The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea (both of which, like Tales of the Night, were brought to the United States by GKIDS). Characters are black silhouettes with eyes, but the backgrounds are a riot of color and detail: flowers and branches, castle walls, a Gothic-style rose window, skies sprinkled with stars or streaked with pink and gold. Almost every frame is shot from the side, giving the images the feel of elaborate dioramas. The six eponymous tales, though none lack some form of excitement, are presented with fairy-tale simplicity and matter-of-factness, without attempts to sensationalize. Why can’t we get more movies like this?
The tales, all stories of magic and adventure, cover a wide range of cultures and settings. The first and last are somewhere in medieval Europe, while the four between them take place in a Caribbean island, Aztec Mexico, the African bush, and Tibet, in that order. Ocelot thus combines many strands of literary and imaginative tradition, resulting in a sort of concise world showcase of fantasy. Whimsical other-wheres plus cultural diversity . . . am I the only one who feels like a child in an exceptional candy store?
A more down-to-earth frame, however, unifies the collection: the stories are presented as short films crafted by an old man, retired from some sort of career in movies, and a young couple dreaming of filmmaking. Brought together by their love of film and their age-related exclusion from the industry, the three meet by night and make movies of their own (hence, the stories are “tales of the night”). Someday, the old man muses, the world may eventually discover and appreciate their work—but these three aren’t preoccupied about that. They love their craft, and their success in making it is sufficient reward. (That’s why we don’t get more movies like this—because most filmmakers are primarily concerned with being noticed.)
Not that they are always perfectly successful. Happily, the majority of the stories are excellent. The first three, “Night of the Werewolf,” “John-john and Beauty-Not-Knowing,” and “The Chosen One of the Golden City,” all succeed very well, establishing stakes well worth caring about and providing satisfying solutions. The fourth, “Tom-Tom Boy,” is fine. The imaginative power here seems somewhat less, and the final plot twist a bit deus ex machina, but the story still holds together and maintains a certain engaging charm. The fifth, “The Boy Who Never Lied,” is disappointing. Though no less visually appealing than the others, it centers around a horrific twist, which the conclusion feebly and unsuccessfully attempts to whitewash. The final tale, however, “The Young Doe and the Architect’s Son,” provides a return to full satisfaction.
The cultural stamp of each is clear, if stylized. Architecture, clothing, and flora and fauna are silent but ever-present symbols. Characters’ names, when given, also enhance the vibes. “Tom-Tom Boy” includes, along with the tom-tom, a good bit of lively tribal dancing; the first minute or so also shows many other activities of an African village, as one person after another tells the obsessively drumming young hero what more useful things he should be doing. “John-john and Beauty-Not-Knowing” features some dishes of the Caribbean islands, and gives them a more important role than one might expect. Religion of various kinds makes some appearances, most notably in “The Chosen One of the Golden City,” which depicts an Aztec human sacrifice. The three characters in the real world, planning this story, note that the Aztecs “were the world champions at this horrific practice,” but then, characteristically, intertwine history with imagination, so that the superstition comes to life in surprising ways. There’s also a sort of priest present, referred to as the “Great Shepherd,” albeit a strange shepherd, sending sheep off to be slaughtered. Paganism makes a much less dramatic appearance in “Tom-Tom Boy,” where a witch doctor tries some odd tricks to cure a dying chief. The only manifestation of Christianity is in “The Young Doe and the Architect’s Son,” in which a wedding is set to take place in a cathedral. It’s a brief but respectful depiction, in which the artists revel in the splendor of Gothic architecture. The archbishop and attending clergy presumably don’t know that the would-be bride is being forced by her evil wizard-lover.
Possibly the most important cultural elements, however, are simply the kinds of fables or fairy tales that emerge from different places. A man turning into a wolf under the full moon must be somewhere in the European tradition. A giant talking iguana is still an iguana, and as such, could only be somewhere in the Caribbean area. The magic tom-tom logically emerges from the African desert culture, in which ordinary drums have a certain everyday magic. One setting serves best for the standing curse of the Golden City, another for the quietly awesome fairy palace, and another for the excursion into the almost cheerfully macabre Land of the Dead. Of course, these kinds of things—cities of gold, lands of the dead, magical instruments—are pretty universal, but the ways in which they are presented vary from one culture to another.
Do the stories have anything in common? As far as content goes, not much. The basic elements of genre have already been noted. The boy and girl play roles in each, always with some romantic element in their characters’ relationship, though that varies from center of the story to barely existent. But perhaps that common thread belongs more to the frame tale, the world of the three filmmakers in the studio, and represents the link between the fantasies and the real world. There is the unifying element. If one wanted to sum up Tales of the Night in one sentence, it might be, “Three people love making movies about fantasy adventures.” If the film is primarily about one thing, it’s about their fascination with art, storytelling, imagination, and the world’s varying sources thereof, and their joy in bringing all that together. Rather than emphasizing those ideas explicitly, Ocelot devotes most of the running time to the tales themselves, thereby encouraging the audience to share his characters’, and his, enthusiasm.
All that said, however, the film’s attitude is not “art for art’s sake.” A vibrant, refreshing idealism manifests itself in their conversations before each movie, especially on the part of the young people: things must be done as they should be done, in storytelling and in life generally. A kind of passionate integrity, both artistic and moral, drives the planning more than once. For example, when the boy and girl are disappointed in the morally pointless source material for “The Chosen One of the Golden City,” they will not proceed until they have imbued the story with some meaning. Possibly the most striking instance occurs before “The Boy Who Never Lied,” when the girl vigorously protests the nastiness of her prospective role therein. (If only the others would listen to her!) Despite that tale’s unsatisfactory resolution, the film consistently maintains a wholesome moral perspective, not usually emphasized but always present, like a guard rail within which the creativity can safely enjoy its proper freedom.
This free inventiveness extends even to the real-world segments themselves. The trio’s meeting place seems to be an abandoned studio, but with aspects of theater, as there’s a stage or screen with curtains and what look like rows of seats before it. The production of sets and costumes is simplified almost to the point of magic, and if the boy and girl are playing the leads, it’s not clear who’s supposed to be performing the other roles. Then for some reason there’s an owl in the studio, whose presence no one seems to question or even notice.
In another film these might be problems, but here, as strange as they are, they don’t feel out of place. Somehow, Tales of the Night manages to absorb or rise above these quirks. They’re beside the point. The film’s whimsical atmosphere is such that they don’t impede the overall success. It almost seems that Ocelot is simply relaxing and having fun, or, to give his work a bit more weight, reveling in the delight of the ideas and images present here, and inviting us to do the same. And why on earth wouldn’t we?
A better question: why on earth don’t we? Why do American audiences, even families, seem capable of enjoying a film only if it strenuously overwhelms them with as much technology and frenetic excitement as Hollywood can muster? I can’t say with authority, but I suspect it’s a combination of filmmakers being afraid to try and audiences not bothering to explore something different. Given the chance, American viewers love the works of Studio Ghibli, or the likes of Song of the Sea. I’ve seen it myself in almost everyone I know who’s actually watched them. These films aren’t appreciated because they aren’t known.
Of course, no one of us can completely rectify that situation. My father and other critics, far more renowned than I, have been doing their best for many years. But at least do yourself a favor. When it comes to your cultural and artistic diet, don’t settle for mediocrity. Know that there are better options, and let others know if the chance comes up. Take the time to pore over these ignored gems. Watch Tales of the Night, quietly, attentively. See for yourself what you think of its stories, and, despite its oddities and occasional slips, whether something in its artistry and enthusiastic wonder doesn’t speak to you. I think you won’t be sorry.