The most swooning and elegant hand-drawn animation masterpiece to climax with a giant robot attack, Paul Grimault’s The King and the Mockingbird wings onto stateside screens at last, after a near-30-year gestation — and then another 30 of baffling obscurity after that. Grimault initiated the project in ’48, but his charming fable quickly fell afoul of troubles even kings and robots can’t stand up to: rights issues.
In 1980 he released the 82-minute version we have today, with about half its length derived from an incomplete 1952 iteration; now the full thing is at last restored and available and just waiting for you to gape, laugh, and cheer at it. The story is a gently surrealist gloss on Hans Christian Andersen, steeped in Tintin, Metropolis, Snow White, and the full despots-versus-workers history of the 20th century.
A bored king repairs to his chambers atop his impossibly tall pleasure tower, where he falls in love with a portrait of a shepherdess. The portrait is alive, in its way, and in love with a shepherd boy in another painting, and soon those two have larked out from their frames and into their world, with the lovesick king’s bumbling warriors in pursuit. Grimault’s frames do the opposite of the lovers’: The director invites us in, to play and dream.
The adventure descends to an undercity whose beleaguered residents have only heard rumors of the sun; meanwhile, the mockingbird of the title lights out hither and yon, the only critter in the kingdom with the temerity to laugh at the powerful. He’s brash, almost vaudevillian — and wholly inspiring as a model of joyous, principled dissent.