Aya of Yop City: Film Review

A vividly drawn and detailed account of West African life that's also a tad short on emotion.

Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie, along with "The Rabbi's Cat" creator Joann Sfar, adapt their popular French comic book series for the big screen.

PARIS -- Following in the footsteps of Persepolis and The Rabbi’s Cat, comic book creators Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie bring their popular Ivory Coast-set series to the big screen in the lively and charmingly old-school Aya of Yop City (Aya de Yopougon). Tracking the adventures of a 19-year-old girl living in a roughshod, working-class suburb of Abidjan, the film offers up an intriguing snapshot of West African life in the 1970s, with a fanciful vintage soundtrack to boot. But it’s also too episodic for feature-length and feels closer to an animated series than a movie that will find major takers outside fests and the graphic novel’s French-speaking fan base.

Produced by The Rabbi’s Cat team of Joann Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux, the film shares a similar hand-drawn, ornately colorful aesthetic, making a convincing jump from page to screen without losing the rich texture of the original six-part series (published between 2005 and 2010). Yet it tends to suffer from the same haphazard narrative structure as Cat, linking together several plot strands from different volumes instead of building a single story arc with a strong enough emotional pull.

Still, there’s much to feast one’s eyes and ears on here, as we watch aspiring doctor Aya (Aissa Maiga) deal with the mishaps of her extended network of friends and family, all of whom live in the shoddy township of Yopougon in the late '70s.

Though Aya narrates most of the action, two of the film’s major storylines actually involve her BFFs Bintou (Tella Kpomahou) and Adjoua (Tatiana Rojo), both of whom dream of marrying a rich guy and opening their own beauty salons. Unfortunately, Adjoua gets knocked up by a mysterious beau and decides to pin it on Moussa (Jacky Ido), the shiftless son of a wealthy brewery magnate, hoping to secure her family’s future in the process. Meanwhile Bintou starts an affair with a flashy Ivorian expat, who she thinks will whisk her away to the finer parts of Paris (she doesn’t yet know what Belleville is).

While they don’t necessarily build into a cohesive whole, Aya’s stories do offer up a telling commentary on the social barriers faced by her community, as the Ivory Coast slowly evolves into a postcolonial capitalist state. These moments are best revealed by several overtly tacky TV commercials from the epoch that Abouet and Oubrerie intercut with the drama, as well as by a subplot involving Aya’s father (also voiced by Jacky Ido), who works for the local beer magnate (Pascal N’Zoni) and his crumbling empire.

Despite the various family crises, affairs and troubled baby-mamas depicted, Aya of Yop City presents a rather placid image of life at the time, where poverty does not necessarily equal violence, and where the denizens of Yopougon still take much pleasure in music, drink, dancing and a certain brand of no-nonsense humor.

Oubrerie’s vivid drawings do much to help capture that spirit, and while the animation can sometimes seem choppy (bringing to mind the lo-fi aesthetics of King of the Hill), the decors and backgrounds are extremely well-rendered, providing a fully layered portrait of Abidjan and its sprawl of surrounding ghettos.

Accompanying the artwork is a host of period tracks mixing together funk, rock, disco, Afropop and Afrojazz, including cuts by Super Mama Djombo, Ottawan, Prince Nico Mbara and Bembeya Jazz National -- clearly one of the most eclectic soundtracks of any animation film, ever.

Production companies: Autochenille Production, TF1 Droits Audiovisuels

Cast: Aissa Maiga, Tatiana Rojo, Tella Kpomahou, Jacky Ido

Directors: Marguerite Abouet, Clement Oubrerie

Screenwriter: Marguerite Abouet, based on the comic book by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie

Producers: Antoine Delesvaux, Joann Sfar, Clement Oubrerie

Executive producer: Thomas Cornet

Animation studio: Banjo Studio

Animation director: David Garcia

Sales agent: TF1 International

No rating, 84 minutes

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