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Taking his lyrical and pedagogical brand of animation all the way back to La Belle Epoque, writer-director Michel Ocelot offers up a pleasantly meaningful journey through French cultural history in his latest feature, Dilili in Paris (Dilili a Paris).
Opening up this year’s Annecy International Animation Film Festival, which is now in its 42nd edition, the film will roll out locally in October and should see a decent following among Gallic tykes — and even more so among their teachers, who could use this as an educational tool to explore the major currents of French art, music and literature during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps a tad too kid-friendly in places, Dilili is still delightful enough to travel outside of Francophone territories to reach some viewers abroad, whether in movie theaters or in classrooms.
Set in the City of Light during one of its major artistic heydays, the simply crafted story follows a young girl named Dilili who arrives as a stowaway from New Caledonia — a French territory in the South Pacific — and gets caught up in a mystery plot that will take her through the upper reaches and lower depths of Paris. She’s accompanied in her quest by an earnest delivery boy, Orel, who seems to personally know every major figure from the period, ranging from Marie Curie to Marcel Proust to Louis Pasteur to Toulouse-Lautrec, and introduces his little detective pal to a host of thinkers and creators who have since become household names.
Indeed, Dilili in Paris sometimes plays like an extended episode of Disney’s Little Einsteins cartoon, albeit with more class and cultural cache. To portray the deep historical excursion, Ocelot places his colorful 2D characters in front of photo-realistic Parisian backdrops of neighborhoods like Montmartre or the Grand Boulevards, with lots of attention paid to architectural details, vintage streets signs, posters and storefronts (such as the classic chocolate boutique, A La Mere De Famille).
There are also visits to the Moulin Rouge, the Palais Garnier opera and the Bateau-Lavoir, which housed artists like Picasso and Matisse (both of whom make cameos). For its sheer number of cultural giants — Renoir, Monet, Debussy and Sarah Bernhardt appear as well — the film cannot be rivaled, and even if it indulges in a bit of name-dropping, it does so in a tasteful way that reveals how truly belle the epoch was.
The plot driving all of this involves a secret society known as the Master-Men that has been kidnapping young girls throughout the city. Dilili and Orel set out to stop them, following clues given by the artists they meet along the way and guided by the voice of opera legend Emma Calve. The mystery seems rather trite at first, and the hints are easily divulged to us, but once Ocelot reveals what the bad guys are actually up to Dilili in Paris suddenly crosses into #MeToo territory, showing how men at the time feared the rise of powerful women such as Curie, Bernhardt and the anarchist Louise Michel — who, through pure coincidence, turns out to be have been Dilili’s teacher when the latter was deported to New Caledonia for partaking in the Paris Commune.
History and culture buffs will appreciate how packed with such information the film can be, yet it’s ultimately driven by Dilili’s sincere and feisty presence. As a black girl in a nearly all-white Paris, she’s a source of both disdain (a few people call her a “monkey”) and curiosity, especially when she speaks in her impeccably polite French. And although the movie can sometimes feel too instructional for its own good, Dilili, like Dora, makes for an amusing chaperone who can move us with her pure candor.
Ocelot’s ornate visuals, which create a virtual map of Paris at the turn of the last century, are accompanied by a playful score from Gabriel Yared (Cold Mountain) and several musical pieces of the time — including Erik Satie’s Gnossienne: No. 1, which provides one of many occasions for the characters to break out in song and dance.
Production companies: Nord-Ouest Films, Studio O, Mars Films
Director-screenwriter: Michel Ocelot
Producers: Christophe Rossignol, Philippe Boeffard
Composer: Gabriel Yared
Venue: Annecy International Animated Film Festival
Sales: Wild Bunch
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