“Mother! Bring me into the world,” the child cries from within his mother’s womb.
“A child who can speak from his mother’s womb can bring himself into the world,” the mother quietly replies. A tiny child crawls from between her legs not a moment later. With a quick tug he rips his umbilical cord.
“My name is Kirikou. Mother, wash me,” the child demands.
“A child who can bring himself into the world can wash himself,” she intones.
Crawling to a green bowl, the child dunks himself in water, splashing and giggling.
“Don’t waste the water. Karaba the Sorceress has dried up our spring.”
The child is still. “Mother, where is my father?”
“He went to fight Karaba the Sorceress and she ate him up.”
The child is silent. “Mother, where are my father’s brothers?”
“They went to fight Karaba the Sorceress and she ate them up.”
The child is silent still. “Mother, where are my mother’s brothers?”
“They went to fight Karaba the Sorceress and she ate them up. Only the youngest is still alive.”
The child is startled. “Where is he?”
“On the road where flame trees grow on his way to fight…Karaba the Sorceress.”
The child is standing. “Then I have to go and help him!”
And the child, mere seconds old, sprints from his mother’s hut towards his sole surviving uncle and his destiny. So begins Michel Ocelot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress. A smash hit abroad, the film won the Grand Prix at the Annecy International Animation Festival and sold 1.5 million tickets in its native France. The film helped revitalize the French animation industry, in part spurring production of Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville (2003) and several sequels that continued the adventures of little Kirikou. Its success was undeniable. But so was the controversy. The film was wildly successful in Europe but was denied distribution in Anglophile countries for years due to Ocelot’s insistence on properly portraying pre-colonial indigenous nudity: the women are all topless and prepubescent children of all ages go naked, including the infant star.
When finally released in America, it was warmly embraced by African-American audiences. Yet it was practically reviled by native African audiences. It was also reviled by many native-born Africans who objected to its depiction of pre-colonial Africans as superstitious and technologically backward. The obvious objection would be that Kirikou and the Sorceress is a folk tale and depicting Africans in this manner is no more offensive than portraying European characters in Grimms’ Fairy Tales the same way. Of course, there is a difference: this is a film based on West African folk tales by European animators for Western audiences. Is it right for Europeans to capitalize on African culture? If no, then what does it say about Western filmmakers who do so anyway? If yes, then is there a proper, respectful way to do so that isn’t exploitative? In fact, do Europeans have any right to adapt African folk tales regardless of sincerely good intentions due to their own cultures being responsible for centuries of colonial exploitation and genocide? These are inescapable questions that arise when viewing Kirikou and the Sorceress. Pedantic? Perhaps. But they are essential nonetheless. So let us take a look at the film itself and see what it has to say.
After reaching his uncle, Kirikou embarks on a series of magical adventures to save his family and people from the evil sorceress Karaba. Time and again, he uses his wits to outsmart her. Finally he asks the most important question of all: why is Karaba so evil? To find the answer, he seeks out his grandfather who lives in a mountain on the other side of Karaba’s den. But considering her den is guarded by vicious, living figurines, including one that can see an ant move on the other side of the Serengeti, he must use all manner of tricks to avoid detection. Using his father’s knife, he digs beneath the mountain, fights off a skunk, befriends a group of squirrels, disguises himself as a bird, and tames a wild warthog. Upon reaching his grandfather, he is told that Karaba is wicked because long ago a group of men attacked her and plunged a poisoned thorn into her spine. Unable to remove it herself, she writhes in eternal agony. But because the thorn also gave her her magical powers, Kirikou reasons that if he can remove the thorn Karaba would revert back to normal again. So, he sets off to remove the thorn and save not only his people, but the sorceress herself.
Kirikou and the Sorceress follows the template of fairy tales more rigidly than its sanitized Disney counterparts. Take one sequence where Kirikou saves the children of his village from being kidnapped by Karaba. First, they play in a river and mercilessly tease Kirikou for being too small. Suddenly, an enchanted boat appears. Despite Kirikou’s warnings, the children climb aboard and the boat starts to zoom towards Karaba. Using a knife, Kirikou jumps onto the boat, carves a hole, and sinks it. Once ashore, the children sing a song celebrating Kirikou. But on their return home, they spot a beautiful tree with giant branches. Entranced, the children climb up to its top, shouting insults at Kirikou who warns them that it’s another trap. When the branches snap shut and the roots start to move like feet, Kirikou must once again save them. In a Western story, this blatant repetition would never make it past the screenwriting stage. But it is this emphasis on repetition that makes the story feel timeless. Here is a parable about human behavior: the irresponsible, rebellious nature of children; the willingness to ignore authority figures; the unwillingness to learn from one’s mistakes. Indeed, Kirikou and the Sorceress is inundated with such underlying themes: the battle between generations; the importance of questioning one’s society; the value of empathy and forgiveness. These aren’t just stories meant to entertain. They are also meant to teach.
The film itself is a visual masterwork, both innovative and endlessly creative in design and execution. Ocelot’s world is one of vibrant surfaces: the common 3/4 view of traditional animation is rejected in favor of profile and straight-on shots. His characters are simplistic and monochromatic in design. They are juxtaposed with heavily detailed backgrounds replete with surprising botanical accuracy. Ocelot explained: “I advised the designers that each plant in the forest should be a masterpiece, botanically accurate, with Egyptian stylization, coloring from Henri Rousseau, with each petal and leaf carefully made iridescent.” The result is a film where characters who appear to be made of cardboard cut-outs live in a world designed by Studio Ghibli (an apt comparison considering that Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata was so enamored with the film that he supervised its adaptation and dubbing into Japanese).
And yet, for all its beauty, for all its majesty and impressiveness, the specter of European colonization cannot be overlooked when discussing Kirikou and the Sorceress. Earlier I asked if Europeans had any right to make a story based on African folk tales considering their history of murderous imperialism. Exploring the film’s production makes the issue even more murky. For example, Ocelot first discovered the folk tales that would come to form the story of Kirikou and the Sorceress while he was living as a child in Conakry, Guinea. But before you claim that because of this Ocelot has more of a right to tell an African story than any other European director, consider the fact that the stories he encountered were first collected by François-Victor Équilbecq, a colonial administrator. Even more, Ocelot only specifically followed the letter of Équilbecq’s work in the opening scene where Kirikou births himself. The rest may have been inspired by African folk tales, but they were largely Ocelot’s inventions. Even more, the idea of Kirikou being a West African story can be called into question as well. The closest match I could find to Kirikou’s story was the Mwindo epic, an oral tale passed down by the Nyanga people of Central Africa.
But even if Kirikou and the Sorceress is the counterfeit of a counterfeit, Ocelot still fought tooth-and-nail to depict the indigenous characters without censoring their designs for Western morals. Both the English and French dubs of the film were done with African actors, the former from South Africa, the latter from Senegal. The soundtrack was provided by Youssou N’Dour, one of the most important African musicians in recent history. Though the resulting film may be somewhat bastardized, Ocelot took extraordinary pains to involve Africans in the production of Kirikou and the Sorceress. The bottom line then comes to this: if Europeans must tell African stories, they can’t do much better than the methods used by Ocelot. And it’s equally unlikely that they will ever match this film in quality ever again.