I recently watched Paul Grimault's LE ROI ET L'OISEAU (THE KING AND THE BIRD) on YouTube, in a freshly restored and from all appearances definitive version. This is a French animated feature that was in and out of production almost as long as THE THIEF & THE COBBLER, and shares with that film a kind of intriguing individuality and legendary status. Although I am embarrassed to say I never saw it before, at least I can say I am glad I waited and passed on previous English language versions that I am betting were more compromised.
I first heard of it when I was still in my teens, often sited in various film books that went to the trouble of documenting the world animation scene. It was put into production around 1948 but not finished until around 1980, with various interruptions and in-fighting between producing partners going on in between. Although much of the production value is consistently pleasing, the later work is quite crude and stiff looking compared to the rest and is very jarring when it appears sporadically at the very beginning and toward the end of the film. The overall intended look of the film is kind of dated, even for its origin, reminding one vaguely of Fliescher's GULLIVER (circa 1939). Given that France's animation industry was probably not that big to begin with, coupled with the impact of WWII only a few years prior, the lapse is both understandable and forgivable. In other words, it's well done, even in it's datedness. Often enough, it transcends it.
I liked it quite a bit, but maybe more for the fact that an animated film of this relative lavishness being produced outside of Hollywood is so rare that sheer novelty alone makes it unique. It's more a fable than a fairy tale, and being based on a Hans Christian Anderson story brings with it the kind of romantic sentimentality that you expect from such. But surprisingly not overly much. If anything, it leans more openly toward a kind of social symbolism that is pretty transparent but at least occasionally satirical and always hypnotically surreal. The two main protagonists are a beautiful barefoot shepherdess and a handsome ragamuffin chimney sweep. Although they are dressed in peasant tatters, they could physically pass as any beautiful princess/handsome prince combo from just about any Disney ripoff, but they are animated with a fair amount of understatement, (albeit to the point of being fairly nondescript). The King in the title is a vain over privileged egomaniac who pursues the couple in order to eliminate the boy and get the girl. His design reminded me of a wooden puppet: his face is like a Mardi Gras mask and his figure is oddly grotesque in a strangely unconventional way--so much so that he is kind of hard to forget once you see him. In the midst of it all the two lovers are assisted by a raucous vagabond mocking bird, who handles most of what passes for comedy here.
The story is so villain-driven that roughly the first 30 minutes are devoted to establishing the King as a loathsome authoritarian fink, even before the romantic couple are introduced. Then when the lovers come to life (in separate picture frames in the King's night gallery of artwork), the main action begins, with the King awakening and giving chase to the fugitive couple who escape the gallery to wed. From there on it's an uneven, unpredictable, but compelling melodrama chase as the lovers enlist assistance from the Mocking Bird and fan flames of hope in the peasant populace of the kingdom's bleak lower realms. The King has an army of mustachioed brutes in black capes and derby hats who provide some of the additional threat and double as Keystone Kops for comedy relief.
It's pretty slender in the story department but it is also quie coherent and cohesive for the most part, so that's no problem. Although it isn't over-filled with laughs, I suspect the Mockingbird (sometimes called MR. WONDERBIRD in English language versions) is vocalizing somewhat more pithy dialog than the subtitles attribute, but my grasp of French language is pretty woeful so I can't confirm it.
Best of all, the film has a dreamlike quality that is thoroughly genuine. Indeed, setting up the action during the night suggests that the whole thing is possibly a nightmare of the King's, but that isn't ever definitively revealed. Although the King and the Mocking Bird ultimately emerge as the only two characters with distinctive traits, the action and the carefully rendered surrealist settings draw you into a world that is worth visiting and distinctive in its own way. Much of the story is conveyed through pantomime and the few songs that are used are brief and unobtrusive. Underneath it all is a a decided anti-fascist/anti-royalist political parody which is sometimes heavy-handed but always heartfelt. (SPOILERS AHEAD:)The inclusion of a fearsome giant robot to aid the King is a refreshing non-sequitor that no mainstream cartoon would have dared at the time and is totally welcome here. But probably the keenest departure from the traditional fare comes in the ending: In a Disney film (or any "Hollywood" fairy tale for that matter), the ultimate happy ending consists of the protagonists inheriting the towering castle as their just reward. In LE ROI, however, the finale has the heroes leveling the heavenly but ultimately oppressive palace to the ground. The implication seems to be that no matter how impressive and beautiful such an edifice is, it will be built at the cost of the many for the benefit of the few. Freedom from tyranny is it's own reward. Hard to argue with.
If it were available on DVD, I can't tell if it would fall into the keep or rent catagory, but I can recommend seeing it at least once if you're interested in old-school animated features.