Literature and cinema have been rife with stories about two people from opposing forces coming together either in friendship or romance like Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet or Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. From Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones to Eddie Murphy in Trading Places, Hollywood has exemplified how often it's necessary for odd couples, especially those of opposite ethnicities, to unite.
Director and French animator Michel Ocelot gives us something that one rarely sees in American animated films, if ever. He gives us cartoon breast-feeding. A brown-skinned woman is nursing two baby boys, chest organs totally exposed. One baby is brown-skinned like her, clearly her son. His name is Asmar. The other is white-skinned with blonde hair and blue eyes. His name is Azur.
The nursing woman, named Madame Jenane, or Nane, may not be Azur's mother, but she treats him as such. Thus, she raises Azur and Asmar as brothers, and, as they get older, they behave like brothers. They squabble but remain friends. They bicker and curse but are there for each other.
The two grow up and slowly but surely start to notice their differences in color and social status. Azur is from European descent and Asmar has an Arabic background. Clearly, there are many levels of discrimination on both descents, and as they become young men, and their roles are more defined, society begins to separate them.
As they mature, however, both still hold onto the fairy tales Nane used to tell them. The stories may seem silly to us, but the fairy tales to them are more than lore. They're gospel.
The story is set during the same time period as Aladdin (1992) and has the same magic and magical beings present. The two boys, somewhat disillusioned by the bigotry in their world, latch onto the idea of these magical beings as saving graces.
The plot is flimsy. The two boys set out to find the djinn fairy, lost somewhere in North Africa. It's a race to see who can marry her first, and, despite complaints about the countryside and culture, there is a forced appreciation for the beauty around them.
No expense was seemingly spared for the scenery. There is a beautiful palm tree forest with a gorgeous gazelle. There are temples with ornate designs, a colorfully, bountiful spice market, and a lush garden, all set to some of the melodious music to accompany a cartoon.
Funny and cute characters surround like a carmudgeon-like, street beggar who runs a blindness scam and a precocious, little princess who is quite quick and quite loquacious. These characters help the two boys on their journey, which by the end seeks to promote cross-culturalism and biracialism, like bipartisanship but between two different races.
Sadly, the ending is a bit of a mess, and really grinds to a halt what the film had built until that point. The animation is 3D computer-generated, amounting to a role-playing video game look. The movement of the animated figures is stiff and not as fluid, despite Ocelot's use of cel-shading or non-photorealistic rendering. Yet, it's funny and cute, and a pretty thing at which to look.
Four Stars out of Five
Rated PG for some mild action and peril
Running Time: 1 hr. and 39 mins.