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