GKIDS Retrospective: Azur & Asmar

titleThis is the first in a series of reviews that will chronicle all of the (non-Studio Ghibli) animated films distributed by GKIDS Films. GKIDS distributes some of the most original and breathtakingly beautiful animated films from around the world, and I’ll be taking a look at how these films hold up for a young American audience.

We’ll be going chronologically in order of release, so first up is…

Azur & Asmar (2006): Michel Ocelot, director

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What’s it about?

Azur & Asmar (sometimes also called The Princes’ Quest in English) tells the story of two boys raised as brothers. Wealthy Azur has blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin and is the son of a nobleman. By contrast, Asmar has black hair, brown eyes, and dark skin. His mother, Jénane, serves as nursemaid in Azur’s house and cares for both boys (Azur’s mother is absent).

While they are young, Jénane enchants the boys with bedtime stories and songs of her homeland and the imprisoned Djinn Fairy who yearns to be set free by a heroic prince. The boys grow up as brothers, but one day Azur’s father sends Azur away to study and then, with no further use for Jénane or Asmar, casts them both out of his house.

They have no personal belongings, he tells them. Everything in the house belongs to him. So they are literally left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Time passes and Azur grows up, yet he remains haunted by Jénane’s stories and songs, so he decides to set sail for her homeland in search of the Djinn Fairy. His ship sinks on the way, but he is tossed ashore–abandoned and destitute–in a strange land. He has arrived in Jénane’s homeland, which has a mix of North African and Middle Eastern cultures, but everyone reacts extremely to his startling blue eyes.

Azur therefore resolves never to open his eyes again, and he becomes a “blind” beggar. Almost immediately, he joins up with another foreign beggar–Crapoux–who takes advantage of the situation and convinces Azur to carry him around on his shoulders while he acts as Azur’s eyes.

Azur is eventually reunited with Jénane and Asmar (who have found wealth and power since being cast out of Azur’s house), and though it takes time for the two boys to reconcile their differences, they eventually set out together to free the Djinn Fairy.

What are the cultures at play? And how about the languages?

It’s a French film mostly about North African / Middle Eastern culture and myth. At times, the story seems straight out of One Thousand and One Nights.

The DVD I watched only had the English dub, so unfortunately I cannot speak to the quality of the original French or how it differs from the English. The English acting, though, is quite good.

Will my kids like it?

I think this depends entirely on the kid. The story is very slow going, and the animation style might seem rough by their standards. The backgrounds and scenery are flat-out gorgeous, but the character design and animation can sometimes be difficult to watch.

The story may also seem overly foreign and complicated to younger kids, and some of the references will likely go right over their heads. The ultimate message of tolerance and acceptance is fairly obvious, but it takes a long time to get there.

Older kids with an interest in history, legends, or other cultures should find a lot to like here, but–again–the pacing of the story requires a bit of patience.

My 6-year-old, who normally likes everything, had a difficult time with this one. The film quickly lost her interest, and, in the end, she just wasn’t very entertained.

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Will I like it?

Again, it depends heavily on your tastes and interests. Visually, the animation is spectacular…with the exception noted above (character design). The lushly painted landscapes, architecture, and Arabic-inspired decorative art are phenomenal and worth the price of admission alone. The computer generated overlays (which include the characters) are less so. It’s an odd juxtaposition, and it never seems to work as well as it should.

The music, however, is fantastic. Gabriel Yared (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley) composed the score, and–even those it’s cliche–it really is a distinct character in the film. The soundtrack is a mix of orchestral Renaissance pieces and Arabic vocals. Jénane’s “La chanson de d’Azur et Asmar” is spellbinding.

The story is interesting, but the pace doesn’t really pick up until the boys set off on their quest to free the Djinn Fairy. And by that point, the film is mostly over.

I also found the character of Crapoux to be incredibly unlikable. I’m not sure how much I can chalk that up to his portrayal by the English actor, but he really turned me off to almost any scene he was in.

Is there anything objectionable for young kids?

Not really. The film does open with a scene of Jénane breastfeeding Azur and Asmar as babies, and we do see her exposed breasts, but it’s entirely appropriate in that context.

How can I see it?

The film is available on DVD and can be ordered from most of the usual places, including Amazon. The DVD has both French and English dubs available, but there are no special features. Gabriel Yared’s soundtrack is also available as both a CD and digital download.

Final word?

Azur & Asmar is a solid film, but it makes for a rough start to this retrospective. It’s not an “easy” film to watch, and it’s not the best to share with young kids, but it does have moments of unparalleled beauty.

Thankfully, though, we get this one out of the way early, as we’ve got some fantastic films ahead of us.

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Jamie is a publishing/book nerd who makes a living by wrangling words together into some sense of coherence. He's the founder and owner of The Roarbots and also a contributor to Syfy Wire, StarWars.com, and GeekDad. On top of that, he hosts The Great Big Beautiful Podcast, which celebrates creativity in popular culture, science, and technology by talking to a wide variety of people who contribute to it.

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