Princes et Princesses

Ah, Christmas….

To me, the Christmas season has always rhymed with fairy tales. My childhood was nourished by adventures happening to princesses, magicians, little boys or animals, and I yearn for the times when people used to gather to listen to these incredibles symbolic experiences. I never considered tales to be some nanny stories to lull children to sleep but rather a wonderful and unrivalled teacher.

But I’m not here to explain how tales shaped our collective unconsciousness (famous authors did that better than I would. See Bruno Bettelheim’s work: The Uses Of Enchantment). What I want to do is bring back a bit of this old magic, and introduce a French sorcerer: Michel Ocelot.

Nationally known in France as the father of Kirikou and Azur & Asmar, he previously worked with very limited means, paper and scissors, and proved himself to be a master at creating a whole universe from naught.

 I’m a sorcerer because I start with nothing, and then, eventually, there is something. And I touch you, I move you, I make you laugh or cry, and you believe in what’s happening on the screen, although I always show it’s invented. (credits to The Hollywood Reporter)

The first short movie he made, “Les Trois Inventeurs”, is absolutely stunning: it’s just paper-cuts and yet you can feel Ocelot’s craftmanship and love. I bet you’ll think it’s not paper but lace. The story itself is pretty much philosophical and both kids and adults can learn a lot from it.

Back to the subject of this post: Princes and Princesses. This movie compiles six short tales, all sharing the same prologue. Two kids present and act the stories, helped by an old technicien, within the realm of a disused movie theater. For the night, this theater is brought to life again to be the stage of incredible adventures. Did you never dream to be able to materialize your fantasies and live them?

If you also want to travel in the Tales land, enjoy this Christmas gift and let’s open the curtains revealing our first story:

The Princess Of Diamonds (La Princesse des diamants)

In the old theater “Cine Si” (Cine If), three people are imagining their next play. The girl wonders, what if she was a princess with the finest diamond necklace in the world? The boy suggests it to come undone with all the diamonds scattered on the grass. The story would then be the hunt for the diamonds. And for the princess! The old technician brings the magical element, with the princess being unable to move because of a curse. The boy likes it, imagining himself as the prince coming to her rescue. The girl chimes in, saying that lots of princes would try but would all disappear without anyone knowing.

Now that they all okayed the story, it’s time to do some research before drawing. Thanks to the old technician’s computer, they have access to lots of pictures of helmets and a Pasbeau Robot is brought to join the boy as a second prince.

The boy and the girl both put their sheets into a strange machine, which automatically dresses them as per their drawings. Now I want this robot.

The old technician: Are you ready? (Vous êtes prêts?)

Boy and Girl: Yes! (Oui!)

The old technician: The Princess of Diamonds (La princesse des diamants)

Two princes are walking in a glade, talking about the Princess of diamonds. One of them (let’s call him Old Prince) thinks more about stuffing his pockets with said diamonds, and when the Young Prince marvels at an anthill, Old Prince wants to have some fun.

He takes out his lighter to set fire but Young Prince doesn’t want to torture the ants and knocks the lighter away. Furious to have his fun thwarted, Old Prince orders him to search for it and Yound Prince discovers one of the diamonds.

Old Prince claims that he saw it first and pushes the Young Prince to take it (who’s the child here?) and as soon as he touches the diamond, a throne (kiosk like) appears from the ground. The Princess is sitting on it, frozen, and holds a hourglass while the chimera guarding her growls.

She greets the Old Prince, and informs him that he’s holding one of the 111 diamonds he needs to find.  Before the sand in her hourglass runs out, he shall have found them all to reassemble her necklace and have one left to feed her keeper so that he’d let him pass. Once the necklace is put on her, she’d be free from the curse and will marry him.

Smugly assuring her it won’t take long, Old Prince began searching while Young Prince walks up to her, but stops short when the chimera threatens to attack. He asks the Princess what happens to those who can’t find all the diamonds and she replies that they’re turned into ants.

Gaping, Old Prince barks at Young Prince to help him but the Princess warns them that a Prince helped by an other Prince would automatically being turned into an ant. That pretty much makes Old Prince quake in his boots and he shouts at Young Prince to stop, who then asks the Princess if she really can’t move at all. She can’t, and sadly says that she became a statue, unable to let go of the hourglass.

Old Prince has only found ten diamonds when already two thirds of the time are up. A music plays like a countdown, and Old Prince desperately searches for more diamonds as the grains of sand slip by. His time is up, and she says farewell as he’s metamorphosed into an ant, pleading for one more minute.

Young Prince can’t hide his shock and when the Princess asks him if he wants to try too, he can only gawk at her. She understands his fear and dispiritedly agrees that it would be impossible to free her. Before returning to her cursed place, she shows her concern by advising him not to touch any diamond for she doesn’t want him to be changed into an ant.

Dejected, the Prince falls to the ground. He’s lost in his misery when the sparkle of a diamond brings him back to reality. Without thinking, he reaches out his hand to take it but catches himself before it’s too late. A quick look at where was the Princess is enough, and he finally decides to touch the diamond.

The Princess reappears, amazed by his choice. Softly holding the diamond, the Prince simply says that he wanted to see her again and try his luck as all the previous princes. The Princess stands open-mouthed, while the countdown music starts and the Prince begins his search. Most of the sand is gone, but he only has three diamonds. The Princess looks horrified, while the Prince disheartenedly falls to his knees.

Everything seems over, but one by one the diamonds shine on the grass. The Princess can’t believe her eyes as she sees the diamonds moving to the Prince, who’s astonished as well. A close look reveals that it’s the ants who are collecting them, to help the Prince.

Touched, he thanks them all and takes the necklace, not forgetting to give a diamond to the chimera who disappears. He fastens the necklace on the Princess one second before the last grain of sand flows ans she can move at last. Filled with joy and wonder, the Princess sweetly asks if he loves her and the Prince can barely contains his glee as he says that he does. She wonders how long this love will last, and he assures that it’ll be forever. *no snerk, no snerk*

Enjoying her freedom, the Princess breaks the dreaded hourglass and stands up to kiss the Prince. They can’t savor it too long as voices rise to congratulate the Prince and celebrate his kindness. The ants turned back to the princes they were, and they’re all glad the Young Prince saved them from the fire of the Old Prince. (who’s praising him as well. Talk about short-term memory)


Certainly the most classic of the lot (Western Europe wise), this tale is also the weakest to me. I guess it was chosen to open the movie because it would make the audience at ease with famous fairytale elements: a princess to save, princes on a quest, grateful animals…Which should not be that surprising, when you realize that it borrows a lot to tales like The Queen Bee (Grimm’s Fairy Tales). The moral of this story (aside from the fun the kids had to play it) isn’t too original as well.

That said, this tale does have its original twists and is not bad. It just felt too tasteless for me, knowing Michel Ocelot’s talent and creativity.

Since it’s our first tale, we meet for the first time the trio behind the stories. I can’t state how much I love this setup, deconstructing the play and making the kids the creators of their own world. They invent and reinterpret existing tales patterns, and do research to know more and enrich their creations. Most of the times, kids are on the receiving end of tales, passively listening to it, but here they’re proactive.

And I enjoy the old Ocelot’s touch, very low-tech, where you can practically see that he only used his hands, scissors and black paper. His cut-out silhouettes are delicate and you see how meticulously he worked on them. He may have used these cheap ways because he was broke at the time he created Princes et Princesses, but the spell tricks us all the same. Indeed, he and his trio of the Cine Si theater may show the strings of their play, we’re still touched, moved, and we laugh and we cry and most of all we believe what’s happening even though we know it’s fabricated. That’s what we call magic.

12 thoughts on “Princes et Princesses

  1. They were screening Ocelot’s Les Contes de la nuit at the BFI Film Festival in October. It was on my list-of-films-I’m-interested-in-seeing, but alas, I did not go see it. Will have it catch it some time, it definitely looks magical.

  2. And while I was googling the title of Les Contes de la nuit (because I didn’t remember it exactly), I came across Lotte Reininger, a German filmmaker who pioneered this kind of cutout animation. Her films are much older (from 1919 to 1979), but lots of fairytales among her work as well. Apparently Ocelot applied some of her techniques, in addition to inventing his own.

  3. haha, I intend to recap “Les Contes de la Nuit, as a logical sequel after Princes et Princesses. I want to highlight the technical differences between both movies, as Ocelot had a bigger budget to realize Les Contes.
    Oh, I’ve found an interview (June 2011) in where he stated he totally used Lotte Reininger’s concept, and even said she “saved my live”, since he was broke and couldn’t afford better ways. He also was invited in a German festival (November 2011), presenting Ocelot as one of Reininger’s heirs:

    the interview (in french)

  4. Will look forward to that – especially the discussion on technical differences. Have you watched anything by Reininger? I imagine it would be interested to watch something done by her as further context Ocelot’s work as well. (My to-watch-list is exponentially growing.)

    I was actually able to understand those articles. 🙂 I don’t actually speak French but with knowledge of Spanish, I can understand 80-90% of written French (did study it in high school for a couple of years, so some basic grammar and a few little words like ‘toujours’ remain etched in my mind too, which is helpful).

  5. yes, I watched her “Hansel and Gretel”, and “Cinderella”, but my favorite is certainely her “Prince achmed”.
    I love Arabian night stories….and her work is well-crafted, so it was a pleasure to see it (though I only saw the first Act)

    oh, tu comprends donc le français ? 🙂
    You said you were in the translation field, may I ask how many languages you master? I know, I’m curious…

  6. I’m definitely going to try and watch some of Reininger’s stuff (and Ocelot’s too).

    I can understand written French okay, spoken would surely lose me entirely. I speak German and Dutch (but they are closely related, so that’s not so difficult), as well as English and Spanish. And recently started Korean and Japanese – but they’ll take me a while to learn, especially because they are very different from the Indo-European languages I have learnt so far. But I like that challenge.

    I want to learn Portuguese too, again, if you speak Spanish it’s easy to read Portuguese but I don’t know any of the grammar or the pronunciation (unlike in Spanish, where you pronounce things exactly as written, in Portuguese they way you write and pronounces words seem to be radically different!).

    I don’t actually translate (or only on rare occasion), I’m a research student in translation. All theoretical, ha!

    How about you?

    • well, I don’t speak as many languages as you do.
      I do understand bits of Spanish and Arabic, but my Japanese is better (to my Moroccan mom dismay)
      I hope I’ll soon pass the JLPT 5, though I’ve been pretty busy lately, with no time left for my lessons…
      I’m also learning Korean, but not as seriously.

      • Impressed with your level of Japanese! I wish I was there already… haven’t had time for lesson lately either.

        I am hoping to win a spot for free Korean lessons at the Korean Cultural Centre for next term (they do a lottery), because language tuition in London is insanely expensive (200 Euros for 10 weeks of classes is a normal rate – and those are the discounted student prizes at uni!)

  7. Guess what! I found out that the cinema of London’s Institut français du Royaume-Uni is screening Les contes de la nuite next month… but on a Friday at 1.15 p.m! And I have to work that day, so this is thoroughly disappointing. They have a kids’ screening with for Princes et Princesses too, but I think that’s going to involve some children’s activities which, ummmm, would be weird.

    But, I’m going to start paying attention to their film programme now, they generally have some good films lined up and hopefully they’ll have more of Ocelot in the future.

    • Ack, how frustrating…In cases like these, I usually grab my nephew et pretend I’m such a good aunt I bothered taking him there, while I just wanted to watch the movie. But of course, this method implies having a niece or nephew…

      • I have no niece or nephew…. and if I did, he/she probably wouldn’t be in London. But I’m optimistic they’ll have more screenings at some point!

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