Making feature-length animation is so time-consuming and budget-gobbling that it’s extremely difficult for individual auteurs to express distinct voices and aesthetics. Like Sylvain Chomet (2003’s The Triplets of Belleville) and Hayao Miyazaki, French animator Michel Ocelot—best known for 1998’s Kirikou and the Sorceress—has developed a sui generis style that’s both of its time (he’s not against using the latest CGI techniques) and somewhat out of it (there are no references to contemporary pop culture).
After a prologue set in medieval Europe, Azur & Asmar moves to an unspecified North African land where the title characters (Kyman, Pilkington) embark on a journey to free the Djinn Fairy. Framing his film as the type of quest frequently found in tales from the Middle Ages (both in Europe and the Arab world), Ocelot gently underscores the silliness of superstitions and comments on the preposterousness of prejudice—including the gender-based kind—with a remarkably subtle touch.
Not only that, but Azur & Asmar is absolutely gorgeous, as the director integrates visual elements and techniques drawn from medieval illuminations and Arabic art, including painstakingly rendered mosaics and architectural details. As the film foreshadows how religious fundamentalism crushed both this art and scientific research, Ocelot honors both light and enlightenment.