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Now Playing: The Island of Black Mor

The Island of Black Mor
dir: Jean-Francois Laguionie (France, 2004)
Rating: 7.9

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Screening last week as part of Facets Multimedia’s invaluable Chicago International Children’s Film Festival — now in its 30th(!) year — was Jean-François Laguionie’s The Island of Black Mor, a delightful animated French film originally released in 2004. I was on the adult jury for the Animated Features category at this festival, which awarded Laguionie a lifetime achievement prize. While not particularly well-known in the U.S., the Gallic director is considered something of a pioneer in French animation, having a career that stretches all the way back to the mid-1960s and includes such acclaimed films as Rowing Across the Atlantic, which won both a Palme d’Or at Cannes and a Cesar (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for Best Short film in the late 1970s. He is probably best known in the States for The Painting (2011), which received a nationwide release here, and played at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a regular two-week run last year. In spite of his longevity, however, Laguionie’s output has been relatively sparse: he has directed just seven shorts and four features in a career spanning 50 years. This is in no small part due to the painstaking work required to produce his particular brand of hand-drawn 2-D animation, which may appear simplistic next to the modern-day wizardry of Disney, Pixar et al, but which I would argue also has more of a human touch — and consequently a sense of warmth — that the digital behemoths of those companies cannot match. Everything about The Island of Black Mor feels hand-crafted and deeply satisfying — like a good craft beer.

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The Island of Black Mor, set on the Cornish coast in the early 19th century, begins as a nightmarish portrait of life in a Dickensian orphanage before shifting registers to become a ripping pirate-adventure yarn about a search for buried treasure. The protagonist is an unnamed 15-year-old kid who hears tales of the pirate Black Mor from his orphanage’s religious tutor. The kid soon escapes from the orphanage, steals a boat and sets sail for the mysterious island where he believes the pirate’s treasure is buried. To help him man the ship, he assembles a motley crew of four: an escaped Sudanese slave named Taka, a comical outlaw duo known as “Beanpole” and MacGregor, and a “little Monk” who may not be what he first appears. The kid, a cocky, archetypal hero in this scenario, identifies with Black Mor and aims to fill the legendary pirate’s shoes. While this may sound like standard coming-of-age stuff, Laguionie, who also co-wrote the script, has some narrative twists up his sleeve, and the film winds up probing the themes of identity, integrity and desire in a way that feels gratifyingly wise. But the real reason to see this movie is its poetic sense of aesthetics: the story is beautifully rendered using broad planes of monochromatic color, primarily blue, gray and green, which are typically separated by thick lines (I read that Laguionie was influenced by painter Henri Rivière but his style put me more in the mind of EC comics): indelible images of ships navigating fog-enshrouded waters combine with Christophe Héral’s strings-and-piano score to create something moody, atmospheric and intoxicating (qualities in short supply in contemporary animation for children). Out of all the animated features at this year’s CICFF, this was the only one in which the visuals did not take a backseat to the story: The Island of Black Mor creates an evocative world in which one can happily get lost.

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Me and my Global Cinema class from Oakton Community College at a screening of The Island of Black Mor earlier this afternoon. Laguionie’s film has unfortunately yet to be released on home video in the United States and the French DVD does not offer English subtitles. One hopes that an enterprising stateside distributor will pick it up soon.

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

30 responses to “Now Playing: The Island of Black Mor

  • Garrett Solomon

    Out of all the animated French films I’ve seen to date, I felt that “The Island of Black Mor” made me want to reevaluate how I saw those particular films in general. “Black Mor’s” plot and character development contained its share of twists and turns, resulting in a satisfying open-ended conclusion that was well foreshadowed by the woman who introduced the film for us. In addition, I was fond of how well-developed the Kid was and how I was able to connect with him. Compared to most cartoon characters in the US, the Kid already knows what he wants to do and yet he’s unsure as to where it’ll take him, which is just like what I’m going through right now. Thanks for helping to make this screening of “The Island of Black Mor” a revelatory one for me.

  • John Charet

    After hearing you talk about this animated film, I now really need to see it. By your account, it sounds as If Jean-Francois Laguione is a master of French animated film and that The Island of Black Mor is truly underrated. I have seen animated films like this including the fantastic Sita Sings the Blues. I also agree with you with your implication that the emotional core of these animated films makes the ones of Pixar and all the others look simplistic by comparison. I love all the photographs you posted including the one with your class. I also think it is awesome that you teach a class on film at Oakton Community College. I take classes at Oakton Community College at the Des Plaines campus (is that the one you teach at?). Anyway, If I was a student in your class, I would feel like a kid in a candy store considering my pure love for all kinds of cinema whether it be genres, filmmakers and otherwise. 🙂

    • michaelgloversmith

      I can’t believe you take classes at Oakton. What a small world! You should definitely consider taking one of my film classes in the Spring (if you need another Humanities credit). I’ll be teaching one section of Intro to Film that meets on Wed./Fri. afternoons at 12:30 and another late-start section that meets on Saturday afternoons at 1:00. I’ll also be teaching Perspectives on Films on Thursday nights at 6:00.

  • John Charet

    I have got to look at my overall schedule first, but If I do not sign up for your spring semester class, you might just see me in your fall 2014 semester class:) P.S. I know this may sound like a silly question, but you do teach Intro to film during fall semesters right?

  • Adriel Wiedeman

    I must agree with the assessment made in our discussion after the film, that this animated film is geared more towards teenagers and young adults. A coming of age story has been told thousands of times, but I found The Island of Black Mor had a refreshing new take on the message of asserting oneself and going for your dreams and aspirations. While the artwork is absolutely beautiful visually, I was constantly aware that I was watching an animated film. I think it is easier for me to get lost in a Pixar Disney film and take it more seriously compared to a comic book animation film. But the characters where very realistic, and I prefer a story with great character development. The Kid and Little Monk where easy to identify with as young men and women trying to discover their place in the world. I was pleasantly surprised of how much I enjoyed the film and was able to take away from it.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Adriel, thanks for the comment. It’s interesting you say it’s easier for you to “get lost in” an animated film from Hollywood when I used the exact same phrase to describe BLACK MOR. I think that computer animation has made great strides in making animation look more “photo realistic” (perhaps best evidenced by the Pixar short THE BLUE UMBRELLA), which will probably lead to a more immersive experience for a lot of viewers. But I think what you cite as the realism of the characters in BLACK MOR is precisely what made the latter film more immersive for me. I think I relate more to “emotional realism” in a movie even if the filmmakers use stylized or deliberately unrealistic means to achieve it.

  • Alejandro Raskind

    Wow. This film was not only breathtakingly beautiful visually, but told a rich story which I received amazing messages from. I expected the animation to be well done but I must admit I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the story and how it was not portrayed in a childish manner. This film has a somewhat darker attitude than the typical American children’s movie I am used to watching. Even the American children’s films that cover more serious subjects are packed with more humor and a lighter attitude than this film. My gut reaction to this is that European children and their parents are expected to be able to handle “adult themes” better than us here in America. From the bitterness of the orphanage shown in the beginning I knew that Black Mor was not an average children’s film and the topless scene towards the middle of the film confirmed my feeling completely. The messages in this film I found very adult and maybe would even be taken home by some more mature teenagers. A message I saw prominently displayed was the idea that if one puts his or her mind to it they can accomplish their goals despite others trying to hold them back. Both “The Kid” and “Little Monk” rebel against those in their way to achieve their desires. “The Kid” escapes his orphanage, steals a ship, and discovers the treasure along with answers he is seeking. He does this fighting much resistance and in the end fulfills his dream of sailing the seas as a pirate. “Little Monk” finally gets control over her life and gets to explore her femininity as a woman for the first time. I agree with Professor Smith that this is more than just coming of age and I feel this way because of how much they have to fight to actually become who they want to be. This is a mind blowing movie and I fully enjoyed the trip to Facets.

    • michaelgloversmith

      While it might seem “mature” in comparison to American animation, if I had children — even young children — I would unquestionably let them watch this film. Kids are often ready for more mature content than what adults are willing to give them credit for. (I really appreciate the eloquence and thoroughness of your remarks, by the way.)

  • Neil Chisholm

    Island of Black Mor was a nice film but I can think of other films of its type
    that I liked much better, like Michael Powell’s “Thief of Bagdad” (1940).
    Black Mor’s hero I thought looked like a young Steve Jobs, another brave
    explorer who went his own way. The scenes with the Monk girl were more
    sensuality that one typically sees in a cartoon for youngsters. The colors
    seemed more muted than is typical for animation but it was original. The
    sound of the French language is always rich to my American ears, a
    sound of worldliness, emotion, sensuality. The movie was pleasant but
    on the light side; give me a bit more punch, like “Seventh Voyage of
    Sinbad” (1958).

  • Unurtsetseg munkhjargal

    I think The Island of Black Mor brought great message especially for young adults. It has full of adventure that every young adult would want to have, however, i believe at the end it has great magic message that let us think. Sometimes people tend to do things to satisfy and proud other people but not for themselves. The film implies that if young person has passion about something and brave enought to do it, there is nothing that stops the person. Also the film has great example of forgiveness. That implies that great person has power to forgive others eventhough they were not trusthworthy. I felt that the film was telling me that your happiness depends on only you, you decide what your life would be. However, treasure and wealth would might make your life easier, it does not bring happiness all the time. So just do what you want and follow where your passion directs you.!

  • Jerry Valakas

    First off just wanted to say that I enjoyed going to the theater and thought that it was a nice change up from are usual classroom. I actually really liked the movie too. Typically I think of animated to not be very deep and I had somewhat low expectations going into it, surprisingly though, the movie told an engaging tale that left me reflecting upon myself, something I did not expect. A lot of times I fantasize about getting to a point in my life where I am content and have everything I want, but this film implies that this would not work. In philosophy we learned that happiness is not a state of mind but a state of being. That it is something that takes constant work and without nourishment, one would inevitably become unhappy. At the end of the film, the kid had everything he ever hoped for and at the last minute he left it all behind when realized it wasn’t truly what he wanted and that if he did choose to stop there, he would live a stagnant life there on after. I think the film also shows that although most of us have a path we follow, it is not necessarily set in stone. On this path sometimes we find other things that are interesting, like a girl or a new hobby, and I argue that these are the things we have to take a step back and analyze before diving into. It is not bad to veer of course and do something completely different, as long as to you it feels right to you.

  • Phil Ahn

    I enjoyed going to Chicago for the field trip to watch this movie for our class. In the beginning, I was expecting a different animation aspect, but the graphics itself was surprising okay throughout the film for a viewers appeal. In some ways, the film also seemed like it is a live painting moving in a flowing sequence in the image of each scene. The film talks about the passion or dreams that one has should be perceived and achieved. Do not let other things stand between you even if it is a difficult road or task.
    For the boy, Kid, he found happiness through his passion for adventures and exploring that even if he had all the riches that were passed down from his father, he did not need it for his own happiness.

  • Robert Manalo

    The Island of Black Mor I thought was a good film to watch and at the same time different animation movie compared to the animated movies made in the present day. What I like most about the film was the message it was trying to bring out which was never give up. The character Kid would go through a volcano, get the mail from the prison, and escape from the big ship just so he could reach his goal which is to find the treasure. In a way I could relate this to myself because I’m the type of person who hates giving up and I keep trying till I succeed. At the end, I felt like Kid didn’t care about the treasure. He enjoyed what he liked to do which was going on adventures with the people he enjoys being around with.

  • Eva Morales

    I really enjoyed this class trip to Chicago. Seeing the film The Island of Black Mor in a theater made the film more exciting and more alive, in a way. Both a younger audience and an older audience can enjoy it. I noticed the style of animation was different than from what I was used to seeing in films like Pixar and I actually preferred the hand drawn animations of this film. It felt almost as if I was watching the images from a story book instead of just an animated film. The main character, Kid, begins his story by being locked up and dreaming of setting sail on an adventure to find treasure. He always believed it to be his destiny so he chased after it. When he finally breaks free and starts off on his adventure many obstacles arise which cause him to change. He meets a girl, who is an import influence over Kid and the girl undergoes her own change by her struggle of being feminine. The main message of this film would be to never give up on your dreams and it’s okay if your dreams change in the end, as in what happened at the ending of this film.

    • michaelgloversmith

      I know what you mean about feeling like you were looking at “images in a story book.” That’s what I meant when I compared the film to the old EC comics. It seems as if you could pause the film on almost any given shot and you would have an image that feels like something you would see in a book/comic book.

  • Eliza Kolakowski

    This movie was just beautiful! It’s a beauty that can’t really be put into words. I loved how it didn’t look like anything made by Pixar because that’s what made it much more special. The hand drawn images remind me of some polish animated films I watched myself when I was a kid. They were just so soft looking with their choice of color and few characters. What really surprised me about this movie is the Monk girl taking off her shirt because I simply didn’t know that that particular scene is a norm that is accepted by the society in France. It’s quite strange though how the U.S. doesn’t show animated films like that for kids when you got them listening to Miley Cyrus. I mean, what’s worse, having them watching and looking up to Miley Cyrus or watching this animated film with just that one particular scene in it? Although, maybe it’s just my generation that finds this strange and if we were to get a younger audience to watch this movie they would be totally normal/cool about it. In addition, the scene in which Kid escapes from the orphanage and from then on goes on about traveling and doing what he wants instead of what he’s told (becoming a leader) did make me look back at when I was growing up. You watch this movie and see a kid jump out the window because that is his only opportunity to take a chance, and looking back at my life it’s like I didn’t have to jump out the window to do anything out of the ordinary, I could have just really done it, why didn’t I? Can’t help and ask myself that, but I got my whole life ahead of me so whenever I see an opportunity I’ll definitely take it with this particular scene from the movie playing all over again in my head. Knowing myself though, I’ll probably evaluate everything beforehand just to make sure it all ends well for me because then again, life is unfortunately not a movie =(

    • michaelgloversmith

      Glad you found it beautiful. I too love the pastel colors.

      The French are definitely more permissive in regards to nudity. I’ve been to France a couple of times and I can tell you it’s not uncommon to see nudity on television commercials (to give but one example).

      Regarding jumping out the window, sometimes you have to be impulsive. If you “evaluate everything beforehand,” sometimes the window of opportunity will close!

  • Charles Cadkin

    It’s not often that I watch an animated film, so this was a nice change of pace for me. I especially enjoyed it because in the rare cases when I do watch animated films, it seems like they come highly recommended from the audiences that have seen them. The other film that comes to mind is “Spirited Away”. Although, as opposed to everyone else, the film’s visual style didn’t blow me away. It felt somewhat familiar, but I always appreciate films that have taken so much extra effort to produce for a more interesting visual approach such as Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly”. That said, the film was still very visually appealing and I appreciated its hand drawn look.

    What I found more interesting was the protagonist, Kid’s, story. His trajectory through his journey to the treasure involved lots of immoral acts and character developments such as stealing a boat and realizing that he actually loved the journey more than having the treasure. The element of Kid going against what is perceived as moral made the story more enjoyable as the characters bypassed most normal conventions of storytelling. Overall the film was very enjoyable and having been the first French animated film that I’ve seen, it was interesting to see the techniques and principles used in their storytelling and animation.

    • michaelgloversmith

      I don’t watch animation much myself either. We had to watch about 10 of these animated films for the Children’s Film Fest and it was really interesting comparing them to each other. The originality of this movie (in terms of form and content) really stands out when you compare it to other animated films aimed at kids. Though, of course, it looks fairly conservative next to a truly radical piece of adult animation like A Scanner Darkly, which I’m incidentally showing to a “Film and Society” class at the College of Lake County next week. Boo-yah!

  • katrina speck

    I watch animated films all the time. I grew up on Disney and Miyazaki and find that I still love those movies today. This movie, in many ways made me think of Disney, but in others not so much. The nudity scene definitely took me by surprise. It’s not something one would see in a American children’s film but otherwise the plot was predictable. I figured out that the Monk was a girl when she was first introduced. The style that she was drawn and the way she spoke gave her away. The fact that Black Mor was the boy’s father also was not a surprise. I’m not quite sure how I picked up on it, but I remember just assuming it. In many ways it was the perfect cute children’s movie. The character learns that it’s not tangible things that will make him happy, but rather living and enjoying his life. So rather than rolling around in the treasure and the mansion left to him, he and Monk sail away together looking for their next journey.

  • John Bendewald

    I haven’t seen too many animated films made outside of the US, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this one. When the movie started, I was immediately taken aback by the artistic style; when I think of hand drawn animation, I naturally picture the films I grew up watching (mainly Disney), and this looked completely different. As I mentioned in our discussion following the screening, I thought it looked more like a computer rendered “Flash animation” than anything handmade, and for this reason I had trouble taking the film seriously at first. However, it didn’t take long for me to get used to this new style of animation, and once I did, I found myself fully immersed in this beautiful movie. I think you pretty much summed it up, Michael, when you said that any frame from this film could stand alone as a work of art. The music was also quite nice, and complimented the visuals well. That soft, sad piano tune at the very end of the film nearly made me cry, especially paired with the image of the Kid and the Little Monk sailing off towards the horizon, going to find their next adventure. I thought the plot of this film was simple, but not at all in a bad way. The story of Kid finding himself is universal and deeply satisfying; I think anyone could relate to it. The cast of characters is diverse and charming. Finally, I just enjoy listening to people speak French. It’s a lovely language. So all in all, I thought The Island of Black Mor was brilliant; it is a true work of art in every sense, and though I’ll always be a Disney fanboy at heart, I both enjoyed and appreciated this film.

  • stefan

    Black Mor in my opinion was one of the best animated films I have watched in a long time. The scenes were woven intricately together to create a seamless and smooth transition in the story delivery. The color schemes migrated from dark and grey earlier in the film to colorful blues and greens evoking the protagonist’s confidence and hope. The music accompanied the adventure and immersed the audience into the 15 year old’s pirate world. Putting all that aside, my favorite part of the film was the message it was trying to send. One can argue that the message was “adventure”, live your life to the fullest, etc. I think the message is divided into two concepts, one simple, one a little more complex. The simple one is that you, as a person on this planet can do whatever you wish. You can get up and achieve your goal, whatever it may be, but you need the courage to take only one step; the first step. The “first step” was shown when Kid looks at the window and jumps into the unknown–the abyss of the ocean. The ocean represented the millions of options Kid can choose to live, or experience just so long as he jumps out of the closed off school he was trapped in. The second message complements the first one, in that you cannot let anyone take what you want away from you, and if you do it is only because you are letting them. To clarify, I mean that Kid, like all people have options, choices and experiences. To follow these experiences and to pursue our dreams we need to let some things go and sacrifice certain things in order to achieve that dream. If one is not willing to let go or sacrifice due to fear of the unknown, one will be stuck in that boarding school where Kid came from. Its safe, secure, you work hard, you are fed and you have a bed to sleep on. However, you will always be looking out the window wondering.

  • Erika Freihofer

    As an avid fan of animation as a film medium, I’m always really curious to see how other adults receive animated movies. Most people are relatively familiar with the work that comes out of Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks, but there seem to be so few opportunities for people to see more mature, risky uses of the medium. It seems like most of you guys liked it, which is great! I saw about 20 minutes of this movie a few months ago: I watched some of it online, but couldn’t find it with subtitles so I mostly watched out of curiosity about the visuals. I am so grateful for the opportunity to see this amazing movie in full, and on the big screen. I found it not only superb in terms of color and scenic design, but also a really surprising and strong take on the most common topic in animated movies: coming of age. There are so many animated protagonists who reject the life they were born into in order to follow a dream. So often these characters, like many of the Disney heroes and heroines, are simply looking for “more”. They feel they are misunderstood, unappreciated, and unloved, and if they could only get away, or prove themselves, or fall in love, then they would be fulfilled. And all too often the hero reaches the end of their journey, and the entirety of their growth can be narrowed down into having married their prince/princess, achieving success/power, or gaining the acceptance of the people who once hated them. They wave goodbye from the balcony of their castle. They live happily ever after.

    This is not that story. The Kid doesn’t care about proving his worth to the people who treat him poorly. He doesn’t care about winning the affections of the beautiful girl. He doesn’t even care about finding out who he is. He cares about being free. The Kid did not embark on his quest looking for his identity: he was content to be nameless, fatherless, and aimless (at least in the long term). He was seeking freedom, symbolized in his eyes as the life of a pirate. He did not seek this lifestyle for its potential riches or power, though he certainly welcomed them as perks. The choice to live as a pirate was about controlling his own life, answering to no one, and never looking out at the world from behind bars, but instead relishing as much of it as he could see. I think the slave scene was a great gesture towards this theme: if the kid had chosen piracy for it’s riches, or if he cared about the prowess and intimidation that comes with having a large, powerful ship, he could easily have sold the slaves himself and kept both the profits as well as the ship. But he chose to release them, taking only what he needed, and granting them the freedom that he values above all else. By the end of the story, he has proven himself to be brave and capable, he has found out where he came from, he is given wealth and security, and he even gets the girl. But none of it matters. The Kid doesn’t choose to wave goodbye from his castle, surrounded by gold, with his arm around his girl. He chooses to ride away into an unknown future, to see what else the world can offer. And how marvelous is that!

    • michaelgloversmith

      Erika, as the resident animation expert, I am so glad that you decided to weigh in with some substantial comments. I was hoping that you would!

      I love the way you contrast this film (and its protagonist in particular) with mainstream American animation and back up your point with detailed examples. I’m also glad that you brought up the slave ship scene and its importance to the theme of freedom. I’m almost embarrassed to admit this but, seeing it on the big screen, the very end of the film — when the tutor says he knew the Kid would pass Black Mor’s final test — actually brought a tear to my eye. If only we could all be like the Kid!

      Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile

  • Phil Kaluza

    Inspirational. That is the one and only word that comes to my mind when i think about the animated film, “The Island of Black Mor”. Typically, animated films target a much younger audience, however i believe this film holds a very deep message that any person of any age can grasp and correlate with his/her own life. The protagonist, i believe, the most inspirational individual in the film. The Kid’s ambition to rise through the dark flames in his life like a phoenix through the ashes and finally become the pirate he has always wanted to be. This devotion towards his goal is the strongest message one could grasp from watching the film. Another trait about the Kid really moved me as well. Rather than allowing those around him to knock him off his feet and quit in the middle of his journey, like several instances in the film, he decided to use their condescending attitude to motivate him to continue pushing forward and fulfill his dream. The Kid is a goon and i really enjoyed grasping the strong messages director Jean-Francois Laguionie packed into his animated film.

  • Niko Florecki

    Black Mor in my opinion,was a great animated film. This film captures a wide audience.sending out a a great message. If you want something in life you have to get up and do it. The “Kid” showed that he would never give up unless he found what he was looking for. I really enjoyed how he made this an obligation for himself. He had put, all of his effort towards getting the treasure.The director had even showed a great example on how Kid was all for this treasure.When the Kid was left behind on the island with the girl. left hopelessly but still manged not to give up and peruse what was important for him. The message that this film gives you is great. One great thing I learned/realized from this movie is that life is full of adventures and anything can be done if you put full dedication towards it.For him it wasn’t about getting the treasure, it was about the journey to find it. He’s achieving his goal for himself which is a big key because, you shouldn’t have to prove to anyone that you could do something except yourself. So once he found it he didn’t want it. He was just satisfied for finding it, and that he accomplished his goal.
    At first this film was a monotonous color scheme and then it progressed to be more aesthetically appealing. Which in my opinion, it showed that better things will come in Kid’s life. It also showed a positive trend towards the film rather then it leaning towards a negative or neutral side with the color of grey.

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