My wife and often operate on different wavelengths when it comes to cinema. We share a lot of common ground, but there are also plenty of areas in which we tend to be miles apart. Sometimes I come around to the things she enjoys, but she’s often light years ahead of me. For example, many years ago she bought a copy of Agnes Varda’s documentary The Gleaners and I. It is one of her favorite films. She came to it on her own and watched it without me. At that point I’d never heard of Agnes Varda and while I’m not opposed to watching films like that, I let it be one of those films that was hers. Only recently did I watch Cleo From 9 to 7 and discover that not only is Varda a marvelous filmmaker but was an important part of the French New Wave.
There have been a number of occasions where this type of thing has happened. It usually involves French filmmakers as she is more tuned into all things French than I. Time after time, she’ll watch a film that I’ve never heard of and then years later I’ll discover it and the filmmaker and wonder why I didn’t come to it earlier. I guess what I’m saying is that I should pay attention to my wife’s tastes more often. Maybe you should too.
Years ago, my wife obtained a copy A Monkey’s Tale, the animated film from Jean-François Laguionie. I’ve looked at it many times, but never watched it. This week I watched The Prince’s Voyage, the new Blu-ray ray from Shout! Factory only to realize it is a sort-of sequel to that film. I’m going to have to watch the original now.
The Prince’s Voyage is a beautiful and strange film. One that only the French could make. An old man who is only called by his title, the Prince (voiced by Enrico Di Giovanni) leaves his kingdom one day to sail across the sea. He crash-lands on the shore of a distant country and is discovered by Tom (voiced by Thomas Sagols) who takes him back to a run-down, dilapidated museum. There, the Prince’s wounds are treated by three scientists, Abervrach (voiced by Gabriel Le Doze), Elisabeth (voiced by Marie-Madeleine Burguet), and Nelly (voiced by Celia Rosich). They watch over the Prince and keep him captive. Years prior, these three theorized that there were other monkey kingdoms across the sea. (Did I mention that all the characters in this film are walking, talking monkeys? Well, they are.) For this, they were laughed out of the scientific community and forced to live in isolation. But at last a real, live monkey from another country has landed on their shores. This will surely put them back in the good graces of the community.
Abervrach studies him closely, taking vigorous notes. The Prince often plays the fool, pretending to be less intelligent than he is. The Prince speaks a different language than the others, but Tom is able to learn it very quickly (he can also talk to the birds and the trees, and other living things). He then teaches their language to the Prince. Confusingly in the film, all the actors speak French so there are scenes in which two monkeys are speaking French but the script has them acting like they cannot understand each other.
Eventually, the Prince ventures into the city with Tom. The citizens act in a most peculiar way. They work long hours manufacturing consumer junk which they then purchase. They make these items intentionally weak so that they will break in a short amount of time thus creating a need to buy those items again and again. After work, they all silently ride the trolley, get off at the same stop, and then change clothes. The trolley rolls around the city in a circle and when it returns the workers ride it to an amusement park where they are given thrills and where they are taught to live in fear.
Meanwhile, the jungle ever encroaches in the city, creating an eternal cycle of the monkeys building their city higher and higher to get away from the jungle. The metaphors here are not particularly subtle. Capitalism teaches us to constantly want new things even when our old things are perfectly good. Governments teach us to live in fear and rely on them. There is a great longing in the film for creative freedom, for the ability to think and create on your own, without punishment from the masses.
The Prince is bemused by all of this. He demands the scientists take him to their king. But there is no king, only a group of scientists. He is taken before them but they do not believe he is actually from another country. They are stuck in their old beliefs. Once again, Abervrach is laughed out of the inner circle. And so the film goes.
There are some occasionally funny moments and tidbits of drama, but mostly, the film is more philosophical in nature. It wants to make a political point more than tell an interesting story. This is why I said earlier it is a film only the French could make. Who else could make an animated film directed at children that is more philosophical than entertaining?
It is sweeter than I’m letting on. It is a gentle film with the developing friendship between Prince and Tom at its center. My ten-year-old daughter watched along with me, though I could tell she wasn’t particularly enthralled with it. Neither was I for that matter, but it is worth watching for animation fans. The film is quite beautiful with sweeping watercolors bringing forth the abandoned museum and creeping jungle particularly well.
While it won’t compare favorably to your favorite animated films from Pixar or Studio Ghibli, I’m glad films like this exist. I’m thrilled that the world of animation is as big, bright, and wonderful as the rest of cinema.
Shout! Factory presents The Prince’s Voyage in a dual-format package giving you both DVD and Blu-ray versions of the film. Extras include an interview with directors Jean-François Laguionie and Xavier Picard, and a study of the Ice Flow sequence. Unfortunately, it only comes with the original French language track which may put off some children (and adults too).