The French fairy tale Azur and Asmar uses cutting-edge digital animation to replicate centuries-old artistic styles. For his fourth cartoon feature, awesomely named French director Michel Ocelot crafts backgrounds that evoke medieval tapestries or illuminated manuscripts. You can imagine seeing images from Azur and Asmar hanging in a museum, only the figures within them move and talk.
Like one of Scheherezade's tales from the Arabian Nights, Azur and Asmar presents a classic storybook quest. Beginning in an unidentified European country, the film depicts two boys: blue-eyed, privileged Azur, and dusky Asmar, the son of Azur's nursemaid. Azur and Asmar grow up literally suckling at the same breast and hearing the tales of her homeland's mythic Djinn Fairy, a magic princess held in an impregnable prison. They become close friends, despite comically frequent arguments, until Azur's father callously sends his son off to a distant tutor and casts out Asmar and the nursemaid.
Entranced by his nanny's stories of the Djinn Fairy, Azur travels as an adult to Asmar's home country, where the Muslim natives treat him as an outcast because of his blue eyes. Azur undergoes sharp reversals of fortune before reuniting with Asmar, and the two become rivals who each seek to find, free and wed the Djinn Fairy.
Subtitled The Princes' Quest, Azur and Asmar may have more value as education than entertainment. Ocelot subtly but deliberately identifies Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultural artifacts and houses of worship, and lovingly shows baskets of exotic spices in the marketplace. Despite taking place in a storybook realm with magical birds and lions as well as Indiana Jones-style booby traps, Azur and Asmar's "Can't we all just get along?" message feels more grounded in the real world than the stereotypical cartoon setting of a film like Disney's Aladdin.
Azur and Asmar's emotional chilliness will keep audiences young and old at arm's length, however. The facial and other character animation proves stiff, bland and inexpressive, with a smart, hyperactive young princess and a sneaky European beggar named Crapoux offering the only memorable roles. Plus, even though the architecture and design mirror art history, it also looks too flat and sterile to resemble places inhabited by real people. Azur and Asmar could be compared to a computer model of an ancient palace: It's pretty, but nobody lives there.
Azur and Asmar. 2 stars. Directed by Michel Ocelot. Rated PG. Opens Fri., Feb. 27. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.