Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Tale of the Fox (Le Roman de Renard) Review

Director: Ladislas & Irene Starevich

Company: UFA

Year: 1937

Country: France, Germany

Obscure but historically important, this movie is like no other.

Although Disney's Snow White is often misidentified as the first full length animated film, there were actually eight other movies released before it. The Tale of the Fox was the sixth animated feature to be released. It was also the second to utilize stop-motion after the 1935 Soviet film, The New Gulliver. (Le Roman de Renard's animation was actually completed by 1930.) and the third to utilize sound. (However, the film did obtain a soundtrack until several years later due to funding issues.) The film was originally released in German (as funding was given by the National Socialist Regime) and later in French in 1941, which is the version currently available for home viewing. The movie is rather obscure outside of France today, likely because distribution was cut off due to WWII. This is truly a shame as director Ladislas Starevich was a true pioneer in his field, and Le Roman de Renard was his only full length feature.

Le Roman de Renard is based upon the medieval beast fable, Reynard the Fox. The story has been adapted into animated form several times. It was written as a political satire of aristocratic society which made the Reynard character popular among European peasants. Unlike many other 'modern' adaptations of the tale, Le Roman de Reynard remains very loyal to the original story and is aimed more at older audiences then at young children.

The original theatrical poster for the film.

The film begins with a narrator monkey operating a film camera. He tells the audience that he has a tale to share with them that is "the oldest and most beautiful story known to us animals." He opens a book introducing some of the film's main characters: the vain Monsieur Raven, Sir Cock and his wife Lady Hen, the fearful Hare, the king's guard dogs, Isengrim the Wolf, and finally Reynard himself. Reynard is very smart. Within the first five minutes of the film, he manages to steal a piece of cheese from Raven by flattering him. Isengrim is introduced as Reynard's rival. The wolf is larger and stronger than the fox, but not nearly as bright. One night, Isengrim plans to steal some fish off of Reynard for his family's dinner. Reynard then tricks the wolf into 'fishing' by claiming that by sticking his tail into a hole in the ice he can catch a large amount of fish to eat. In the end, Isengrim returns home with no dinner (and no tail) only to discover Reynard has stolen his food instead! (It should be noted that both of these episodes are also featured in Aesop's Fables.)

Reynard's pranks on Raven, Isengrim and several other animals eventually result in several complaints to the King Lion and his wife. Reynard's cousin, Badger, defends him in court, stating that the fox is not guilty. He weaves tales of Reynard's 'good deeds' and frames Isengrim and the other animals as being lazy, dishonest, cowardly or greedy (which aside from the 'good deeds' part is, ironically, true to some extent). The King is unable to prove Reynard's crimes, so he decrees that no animal can no longer eat one another so that 'love can reign the land.'

The movie is unusual because its protagonist is not the kind of ideal hero that we are commonly accustomed to seeing in animated films. As with many of the other characters in this film, Reynard is a self-centered survivalist. Not all of Reynard's actions are entirely harmless. The fox is far from being enthusiastic about the King's new law. (In fact, he refuses to go vegetarian despite the risk of being hung because he finds the taste of flowers disgusting.) Badger is unable to defend his cousin when Reynard kills and eats Lady Hen. The rooster calls for revenge and the king sends several of his members of court to capture Reynard and his family. In the end, however, the cunning fox manages to outwit everyone including the King himself. Because the King's army is unable to successfully siege Reynard's home, the fox is selected as the king's new minister. Such is politics.

While it's easy to admire Reynard's quick wits, he's also somewhat of a selfish jerk.

Narrative structure aside, The Tale of the Fox is probably most noted for being a technical marvel. Despite that the movie is almost eighty years old the stop-motion holds up remarkably well, even rivaling what is put out by today's studios. This is especially notable because Le Roman de Renard premiered only three years after King Kong, which special effects look very dated by comparison. The film features many cutting techniques and a use of motion blur largely unseen at the time. Below, is a clip from the film involving the Queen being wooed by Tybalt, the minstrel cat. (Their doomed relationship is an interesting subplot present throughout most of the movie.) It demonstrates this movie's mastery of its medium.

The iconic scene where the peasant cat woes the queen.

This movie is one of the most unique and unusual films I have ever seen. It is an absolute must watch for not only lovers of animation, but for any film enthusiast period. Reynard and the other animals in this movie are not always the most admirable characters, but they are relatable due to their remarkably human flaws and impulses. Although this film is old and is different from much of what is produced today, it is very memorable for exactly that reason. If you are feeling adventurous, Le Roman de Reynard is more than worth your time. (The entire film is currently available on Youtube with English subtitles and can be watched here.)

Ladilas and his wife, Irene, posing with large scale versions of the puppets used in this film.

Rating: 4.5