Sunday 6 October 2019

The Prince's Voyage (J-F. Laguionie / X. Picard, 2019)

Xavier Picard, director of the excellent Moomins on the Riviera, teams up with veteran animator Jean-François Laguionie for this quasi-sequel to the latter's 1999 film A Monkey's Tale.  Laguionie has been working in animation for over 50 years yet, A Monkey's Tale aside, his work isn't especially well known beyond continental Europe.  While Laguionie's films bear similarities, in both mood and appearance, with those of Michel Ocelot, he's never really experienced anything like the same success as that enjoyed by his lauded contemporary (as a side note, Ocelot's BAFTA-winning The Three Inventors was filmed in Laguionie's home).  That said, Laguionie did receive an honoray award (and a standing ovation) at this year's Annecy IAFF, where A Prince's Voyage premiered; it continues its festival run at the London Film Festival, where it screens today as part of the Family programme.  The film will go on general release in early December.

When Prince Laurent is washed up on an unfamiliar shore, he's rescued by young Tom, whose name is just one letter away from that of Kom, the main character from A Monkey's Tale; Laurent notices, and comments on, this similarity.  Tom takes the injured Laurent to convalesce at the home of married couple Victor and Elisabeth who, like Tom and Laurent, are monkeys, as indeed are all the characters who populate the film.  Elisabeth is a botanist who is working to find a solution to the forest which seems bent on reclaiming every building it comes across, including the remote, abandoned museum where the couple now reside.  Victor is a professor who has long been obsessed with proving that other monkey civilisations exist on the same planet, a theory which has made him a black sheep in his academic circle.  So when Laurent - who speaks, but in another language - arrives, Victor sees the prince as a golden chance to prove his hypothesis to his peers.  Laurent is cultured and sophisticated, but, in scenes which nod towards François Truffaut's The Wild Child, acts in a primitive manner simply to irk the professor.

While Laurent doesn't care for the professor or the stern Elisabeth, he's far more taken with Tom, and the two enjoy spending time together, learning each other's language and trading stories about their different cultures.  This shared curiosity gives Laurent and Tom the urge to discover the sights of the nearest city, and the pair sneak out to spend a night exploring various metropolitan delights.  Laurent is struck by the sullen nature of the city dwellers, who fail to respond to his cheerful greetings as they trudge home after a day's work.  The city's population are allowed to have fun in the evenings, however, and Laurent and Tom join them in various leisure activities, including a showing of a film which, amusingly, riffs heavily on King Kong.  As the only member of the audience who's laughing at the spectacle, Laurent has to leave the screening, and as he and Tom begin to head home they are pursued by some shadowy figures; the prince's fortunes are about to take a turn for the worse.

As you'd expect, the animation in The Prince's Voyage is top notch, and at 77 minutes the film by no means outstays its welcome - although a late development which introduces some new characters feels slightly unnecessary.  As with much of the aforementioned Michel Ocelot's output, The Prince's Voyage isn't the ideal film for very young children; the LFF screening is subtitled - although an actor will read out the subtitles, via headphones, for the benefit of younger audience members - which is rather telling.  Unless a version with English audio exists (or is planned), the film probably won't travel much further than the majority of Laguionie's efforts.  While it's all a little bit low-key, there is much to like here, and the simple, clear message - that we shouldn't be afraid of the Other, but rather should look to what unites us all - is a fine one for children and adults alike.

Darren Arnold