By pure accident tonight, I watched Dragon Hunters, an animated French movie for kids which was released in America in 2008 with English voices, most notably that of Forest Whitaker as the hugely muscled, sweetly earnest Lian-Chu.
Based on a French TV series which I'd never heard of, the movie is a 3-dimensionalized story about two men, friends from their days in an orphanage, who work as dragon hunters, along with Hector, their blue... dog? dragon? rabbit?. Gwizdo, the unscrupulous brains of the outfit, is a fine foil for Lian-Chu's stolidly heroic personality, and though they never seem to get the money they need, they have each other. Their quest in life is to make enough money to retire to a little farm, where they will grow -- "sheep," puts in Lian-Chu, whenever it comes up: Lian-Chu is an avid knitter.
The two are discovered by Zoë, a young girl who lives in a vast castle with her blind dragon-hunter knight uncle, who doesn't appreciate her. She dreams of becoming a knight and dragon-hunter, and has left home to find knights who can help her uncle kill the "world gobbler" dragon who is coming, as it comes every twenty years, to wreak distruction and disaster.
This sounds like a normal fantasy, similar to many animated features churned out by Hollywood. Believe me, it's not. The art direction, the scenery, and even the premise is actually totally unique. The landscapes are an amazing fiddle of physics, requiring conceptual leaps which are both disorienting and wonderful, because they live in a floating world, made up of fragments of land which float and move, but nevertheless have their own gravity. Moving through this space consists, often, of stepping from chunk to chunk of ground which either floats near you by accident or is held in place by roots or other debris. The opening scene, where Lian Chu is trying to kill a slug-like dragon which drags him around and around a variety of little ball-like floating planetoids, scraping off the vegetation which takes to the air, floating all around them -- this is like nothing Hollywood would make. The whole thing has a non-American flavor, from the weirdness of the world to the odd details of character and humor.
It's these details that are wonderful, funny and awe-inspiring and vivid, like when Hector, in the middle of an action sequence, pulls a booger out of his nose, and in the next shot wipes it, unnoticed, on Gwizdo's sleeve. Or the passing moment when Zoe comes out from behind a pillar, pulling up her pants. Or when, as they come closer to the end of the world, they encounter the wreckage of some past civilization, looking like Prambanan and Palmyra, all taken apart and floating everywhere, filling space with lost chunks. Or the calendar Zoë's uncle makes to predict when the World Gobbler will return, which gives the inspiration for some of the best credits I've ever seen, full of awesome little clockwork devices that appeal to the deepest part of my clockpunk soul. The details fill out the movie, taking it out of the realm of mere kid's adventure and putting it up with Carl Barks' duck comics or the best of the Asterix books, an endlessly repeatable classic.
Oh, and did I mention the music? I noticed gamelon-ish music going by, as well as some sort of arabesque mix, and I believe there was a Cure song in there somewhere; quite a collection, and very un-Disney.
It was so engaging, so awesomely mind-bending and beautiful in its production, that I found myself looking around for more by the same people. But it seems to be a combined effort of several French cartoon directors and writers, and what they've done before is mostly for TV. However, make note of Guillaume Ivernel, who did the really beautiful backgrounds for the Dragon Hunters TV show and was the art director as well as co-director for the movie with Arthur Qwak, the creator of the series. So the luminous anti-gravitational universe through which the characters walk -- and which gives the whole thing its surreal style -- is his doing, though the original concept came from Qwak. It's clear that they had a blast doing this movie, and though it may be a one-off, one can't help hoping for more.
More details about the movie here.