Tomi Ungerer’s 1966 Moon Man — a children’s picture book lauded by Maurice Sendak — receives vibrant big-screen treatment in the directing debut of German producer Stephan Schesch. Relating a sweet parable about the man in the moon’s visit to Earth, the animated feature honors the visuals and narrative tone of the source material. The movie’s offbeat charm sets it apart from the frenetic energy of a lot of family-targeted animation. Audiences who are used to the high-concept extravaganzas of Pixar and Disney might not be won over easily, but art-house moviegoers should appreciate the lighter touch.
Schesch, who produced another animated Ungerer adaptation, The Three Robbers, as well as the live-action Mongolia-set feature The Cave of the Yellow Dog, combines a number of styles, from line drawings to more painterly effects, in the 2D Moon Man. With nods to Rube Goldberg, Picasso and Escher, and delightful set pieces that use recordings by Louis Armstrong and Iron Butterfly, the picture unfolds with a sense of discovery that suits the story of Moon Man’s earthbound adventures. The film’s energy waxes and wanes, and it lacks a strong emotional hook, but it’s never less than engaging and often, in its low-key way, dazzling.
Tired of the same-old same-old, Moon Man grabs the tail of a shooting star and lands with a crash on Earth, just as the planetary President (voiced by Michel Dodane) has consolidated his worldwide dominion. The dictator promptly orders his military to search for the supposed invaders who instigated the attack by “extraterrestrial fireball.” At the same time, he decides to extend his control to the moon, and toward that end enlists the rocket-building know-how of an eccentric inventor, Bunsen van der Dunkel (Pat Laffan).
The made-in-China medal that the President presents to the scientific genius is among the film’s understated sight gags. There’s also the oddly voluptuous coif of the President’s scheming colleague: a topknot in the form of a femme fatale. The story’s digs at self-importance and pretension begin with the presidential flag, which bears the symbol of … a flag.
When he’s not dodging dastardly maneuvers, Moon Man enjoys his new surroundings. He’s fascinated by birdsong and blends in at a kids’ costume party. He revels in stylized jewel-bright gardens and coiling rivers, grunting with wonder and curiosity before turning out to be a quick learner of language. Katharina Thalbach provides his wonderful gravelly voice. The English-language version’s European cast speak mostly with British accents, while French-accented author Ungerer delivers the narration.
The mélange of story elements includes the odd couple of a moose and a flashlight-wielding owl, and the travels of a little girl, her dog and her father (Paul McLoone) in a finned convertible, often beneath a vast night sky. At windows around the world, children gaze up at the blank moon, forlorn and unable to sleep without the familiar, comforting sight of the man who usually inhabits it. Key among the fable-capping lessons, delivered without getting mawkish, is one that Moon Man learns about his place in the universe.
Venue: City of Lights, City of Angel (COLCOA)
Production companies: Schesch Filmkreation with Le Pacte, Cartoon Saloon
Cast: Katharina Thalbach, Tomi Ungerer, Michel Dodane, Pat Laffan, Paul McLoone
Director: Stephan Schesch
Writers: Stephan Schesch, Ralph Martin
Based on the book by Tomi Ungerer
Producer: Stephan Schesch
Director of photography: Gyula Szabo
Co-director: Sarah Clara Weber
Editors: Sarah Clara Weber, Laurent Lepaumier
International Sales: Le Pacte
No MPAA rating, 95 min.