'Yellowbird': Film Review

Yellowbird Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Haut et Court

Yellowbird Still - H 2014

This won't fly with anyone over 6

Seth Green voices the titular zero-to-hero of this animated avian fable from director Christian De Vita and France's TeamTO animation studio

A bird orphan from an unspecified sedentary species has to lead a flock of migratory birds that have just lost their leader to Africa in the computer-animated feature Yellowbird from director Christian De Vita, a storyboard artist on Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie. Featuring somewhat blocky and studiedly nonrealistic visuals designed by Ernest and Celestine’s Benjamin Renner, this first feature from France-based animation studio TeamTO is a strictly-for-kids affair with a straightforward and often cliched story. Despite a voice cast that includes Seth Green, Dakota Fanning and Danny Glover and a screenplay co-credited to Cory Edwards (Hoodwinked), this opened theatrically in the Detroit area only, ahead of its VOD/DVD release in April. It will open in theaters in Europe from February on, though there, too, home-viewing formats will probably be more popular than the theatrical experience, despite some nice 3D effects in the many airborne sequences.

The titular hero (voiced by Green) literally sees the light of day in the first moments of the film, with a neat POV shot from inside the egg as it cracks to let out the little bird. No parents or others of his species are in sight, though the kid does strike up an unlikely friendship with a ladybug (Yvette Nicole Brown) who not very subtly tries to push Yellowbird to venture out of his comfort zone and into the real world. "Tough just isn’t me," he informs her, though the movie of course makes it its duty to prove the feathered antihero wrong.

In practically the next scene, Yellowbird finds himself beak-to-beak with the dying head of a family of blue-feathered birds, Darius (voiced by Glover), who entrusts him with the details of a new route to Africa that will help his flock avoid the dangerous "iron birds" (planes) that have started appearing on their usual route. But not only is Yellowbird not cut out for leadership; he’s not even an actual migratory bird. Practically from the start, the young animal seems to confirm the suspicions of Karl (Jim Rash), the young and cocky wannabe leader who doesn't trust this inexperienced intruder and who feels he's the rightful heir to Darius.

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The screenplay, written by French arthouse writer-director Antoine Barraud (Les gouffres) with an assist from U.S. scribe Edwards, too often seems to be under the mistaken impression that making a movie for kids means everything needs to be overly spelled out, especially by using as many short-hand cliches as possible. Of course Darius’s death scene — carefully modeled on Disney progenitors such as Bambi and The Lion King — is set not only in an abandoned church but occurs precisely in the spot where colored lights prettily fall through a rose window. After a first stop in stinky Paris, the arrival of the flock in the Netherlands is similarly signaled by a view of a landscape full of windmills, though here it isn’t only Africa-bound Yellowbird who is lost, as the film’s gigantic, Dover-esque coastal cliffs don’t actually exist in the Netherlands, a country famous for being flat as a pancake. 

The story of Yellowbird’s slow, obstacle-filled path to becoming an actual leader, as well as his growing interest in the pretty Delf (Fanning), is largely predictable and won’t hold any surprises for anyone semi-film or storytelling-literate. The characters aren’t particularly funny or clever either, and practically all animals besides the protagonist, Darius and Karl, remain vague nonentities or one-trait caricatures. There are a few — too few — exceptions, including the film’s clever way to obtain a (spoiler?) happy ending and an entire sequence set inside a semisubmerged oil tanker that’s adrift in the North Sea. Though the storm-at-sea scenes are among the most impressive visually, especially in 3D and with the many violent airstreams neatly visualized, this entire sequence finally feels more like an obligatory stop for an Important Environmental Message than an organic part of Yellowbird’s coming-of-age story arc.

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Renner, who’s credited with the film’s "visual development," has done a great job of avoiding photorealism altogether despite working with CGI, with the animals rendered as if they were made out of layers of paper and papier-mache, and a lot of the environment looking like it took a cue from the stark, blocky forms found in linocuts.

The score by Shakespeare in Love and Billy Elliot’s Stephen Warbeck is among his most uninspired, with his music also seemingly content to find barely disguised variations on themes and songs from The Lion King. An entirely unexpected song by Gogol Bordello feels like an interloper from a wilder and much more interesting movie.

Production companies: TeamTO, Haut et court, La Compagnie Cinematographique, Panache Productions, Rhone Alpes Cinema, Belgacom

Cast: Seth Green, Dakota Fanning, Christine Baranski, Danny Glover, Yvette Nicole Brown, Brady Corbet, Zachary Gordon, Ryan Lee, Jim Rash

Director: Christian De Vita

Screenplay: Antoine Barraud, Cory Edwards

Producers: Corinne Kouper

Executive producers: Guillaume Hellouin, Caroline Souris, Patrick Dedieu, Jean-Baptiste Spieser, Marie-Pierre Journet

Associate producers: Simon Crowe, Lenora Hume, Laurence Petit, Bruno Szenec

Production designer: Benjamin Renner

Music: Stephen Warbeck

Editor: Fabienne Alvarez-Giro

Casting: Linda Lamontagne

Sales: SC Films International


Rated PG, 90 minutes