Tales of the Night (Les Contes de la Nuit)


Sometimes, when you appropriate the storytelling modes of other cultures or time periods, the result is an enormous, semi-informed embarrassment that you ultimately have to zip-a-dee-disavow because of the finished product’s zip-a-dee-ay-trocious racism or whatever. Even approached conscientiously, with the best possible intentions, an artist’s own cultural biases inevitably inform the finished product, and, while Disney’s Song of the Birth of a Nation was Aryan Nation garbage, director Michel Ocelot’s pretty Tales of the Night (Les Contes de la Nuit) is just really, really French, even with the English vocal track with which it has been released here. Although the film adopts the storytelling modes of other cultures—Caribbean, African, Middle Eastern, among others—the film bears a certain emotional remove and coolness of affect you don’t generally find in folktales. It’s also clear that this episodic film was assembled from a children’s series from French TV, as each act is prefaced with a didactic little preamble in which the three main characters have a shallow, uninformative discussion of the culture from which they’re about to appropriate the next story. Two young kids and an old man occupy an abandoned, magical movie theater every night, and the stories they tell become movies in which they take part. Beautifully designed, the background shapes of trees and buildings consist of cool blues that pop forward from warm red skies, lending depth to a stylish, flat art style; a sharp contrast with the ghastly Jolly Rancher color palettes of most American animation. All characters are rendered in silhouette, with only occasional glimpses of their eyes, each figure distinctively shaped and easily distinguished. The stories are quick, tiny surveys of a given culture’s conventions told as monomythic, Joseph Campbell–ish pastiches and animated with fluidity and deliberateness that nearly excuses the film’s slightness.