No provocation intended by 'Kirikou' helmer

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PARIS -- Michel Ocelot is considered by many French kids as the father of contemporary French animation. His two previous movies, both recounting the adventures of the plucky African child Kirikou, were huge hits in France.

Ocelot's latest work, the dazzling East-meets-West fairy tale "Azur and Asmar," hits French screens Oct. 25 and shows off a filmmaker in full mastery of his art.

The movie had its world premiere in the Cannes sidebar Directors' Fortnight, where it wowed audiences. The first screening, to which several hundred kids had been invited, was met with a rapturous ovation.

But "Kirikou and the Sorceress" and its sequel had problems finding distribution in Anglo-Saxon territories, partly because of the African women's naked breasts. In "Azur," the opening shot is a close-up of a woman suckling an infant. A deliberate provocation on Ocelot's part?

"Not at all," says the soft-spoken director. "My head and my heart said, 'This is how it will start.' It's a nice opening. A blond baby suckling a dark-skinned woman. Half the film is explained right there."

Ocelot says he's aware that English-speaking family audiences might balk at images of breastfeeding, but says there is no question of altering his film. "It's important that she's a wet nurse, and she's nourishing the child. There's a strong symbolism: the West, which is nourished by the Orient."

The film's underlying message of crosscultural tolerance and understanding is no doubt timely. Critics have also praised the highly original graphic universe Ocelot has created, in marked contrast to the hegemony of Disney/Pixar and their emulators. Gallic distributor Diaphana is hoping the French public will be as receptive and is putting out the film on more than 500 prints.

"Azur" uses richly colorful 3D character animation against 2D backgrounds to tell the tale of two youths who grew up as brothers -- though one was of European origin, the other Oriental -- who embark on a mythical quest to find the Djinn fairy. After becoming bitter rivals, they realize the path to success lies in cooperation.

The movie was the first foray into non-live-action movies by Nord-Ouest Production ("Merry Christmas"). Sales company Wild Bunch is expecting to close a U.S. distribution deal at AFM.

Ocelot's next projects are both shaping up with Nord-Ouest. One is a DVD of the director's largely unseen short films, which he made in the early part of his career, some of which took many years. The other is a feature film called "Shepherdess and Dragon" using cut-paper silhouette techniques, on which Ocelot has already been working for some time.

He also has several projects that are strictly for adults. "I've got all sorts of projects. There are even one or two that are erotic," Ocelot reveals.
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