Good Fight and Good Muck: Azur & Asmar avoids muddy plotting with clean animation.

Get local news delivered straight to your phone

Support City Paper!

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Michel Ocelot’s animated fairy tale Azur & Asmar ends, as its child princess coos, “as all stories should.” Well, in the sense that the central quest is—spoiler alert!—resolved happily, she’s right. But the French writer-director also injected a message about racial and religious tolerance into his otherwise nursery-school simple feature, so there’s a bit of a twist in the boys-rescues-girl climax that provides a teachable moment. The boys in question are the titular characters (voiced as adolescents by Steven Kyman and Nigel Pilkington), who grow up in medieval Europe as virtual brothers under the care of Jenane (Suzanna Nour), an Arab woman who’s Asmar’s mother and Azur’s nanny. When the blond, blue-eyed Azur is old enough for school, his unaccountably cruel, aristocratic father sends him packing with a tutor and throws out the nanny and her son. Years later, Azur shows up in an unspecified Arab country, finds Jenane, and then sets off with a still-bitter Asmar to rescue the fairy princess they were told about in bedtime stories. Azur has a difficult time when he first comes to Asmar’s homeland, where blue eyes are considered bad luck and the natives want to kill him. (To defend himself, he pretends to be blind.) Jenane, now wealthy, serves as a role model for progressive thinking, instructing her large staff and anyone else who sets foot in her house to leave if they believe in such superstition and prejudice. The film isn’t all medicine. Energy-wise, Azur & Asmar would barely register a pulse in the world of Disney—and for older kids it might be a bit dull—but its straightforward storytelling and low-key humor are a relief from the reference-stuffed fevered pitch that Hollywood animation delivers. Better still, though the plot may be elementary, its execution isn’t dumbed down, with a significant amount of Arabic and French dialogue that passes untranslated yet whose meaning can be grasped in context. And if valiant princes and damsels in distress aren’t your thing, just take in the animation: The characters are cookie-cutter, but the backgrounds are richly patterned, nearly tactile CG, with particularly beautiful scenes including a hypercolored, jewel-toned market and a field of wildflowers that borrows the brightest colors from Monet’s “Water Lilies” paintings.