Karaba the Witch

Hold onto your hats, folks — I found a children’s animated adventure that has nearly as many female main characters as male ones! Possibly more, depending on where you draw the line on which characters are main characters.This film is Kirikou and the Sorceress.

The hero of this fairy tale is Kirikou, a tiny baby boy with miraculous powers. He’s born into an African village where almost all of the men are gone because they’ve been eaten by Karaba the Sorceress. Now I can just feel some vagina-dentata-fearing male readers out there clenching up, so please don’t be afraid: it turns out the men were never eaten, and they come back to the village safe and sound at the end of the film.

Since most of the men are gone, naturally the remaining adults in the village are a variety of women who take an active role in dealing with the village’s problems such as lack of water and a menacing sorceress living nearby.

Most of the people in the village are just ordinary people trying to get by in spite of their problems. The writers did an exceptional job of not reducing the background characters to cardboard cut-outs, but rather showed realistic self-interested behavior. They’re shown worrying about the village’s problems in general, but are slightly more concerned about their own interests (water, home, jewelry) than the interests of others and the group. The children are particularly realistic: they’re more concerned about their fun than about their safety, and both boys and girls are shown alternately teasing and praising Kirikou in response to social cues from the other kids.

kirikou_children_dancing.png

The poles of wisdom and foolishness are both represented by old men. The one remaining old man in the village wants the whole village to listen to him and respect his wisdom, but he’s closed-minded and superstitious, hence wrong more often than not. The wise man under the mountain — whom Kirikou must seek — knows not only the secrets of the sorceress, but also a lot about human nature (as you’ll see if you watch the film — it’s a little hard to do the scene justice in a short review).

The next tier down in terms of wisdom is filled by Kirikou and his mother. Since Kirikou starts out as a baby, at the beginning he knows nothing and sometimes reacts immaturely. As the film progresses, we see him increasing in knowledge and wisdom as he refuses to accept things at face value but rather constantly asks why things are the way they are. He learns a great deal from his mother, who appears to be the wisest person remaining in the village (after the sorceress cut them off from the wise old man under the mountain). At the same time, the mother is wise enough to know the limitations of her own knowledge, and she’s brave enough to aid and encourage Kirikou on his quest.

kirikou_and_karaba.png

And the sorceress herself? Karaba is a great villain who’s a complete character with motivation and a back-story in addition to having fabulous evil powers and a look to die for.

This film is visually beautiful with great use of color. However, it’s obvious that they don’t have a big Hollywood budget, so much of the animation looks wooden and repetitive, particularly to those who are used to the spectacular lush backdrops and realistic movement of today’s computer-animated blockbusters. However, having watched way too many children’s films way too many time these past few years, I can tell you that the blockbuster expectation is like a lead weight dragging down many of the most visually stunning films and keeping them from coming close to being great films. A major studio can’t take any risks on its one or two superfilms, so they go with scripts written by committes that don’t deviate one millimeter from the tried-and-true formulas. As a result, the most original and imaginative offerings can still be found in more traditional animation styles, such as this film or Wallace and Gromit. My hope is that as the technology improves, computer animation will become cheap enough to allow a greater range and variety of computer-animated films to get made (in addition to the big box-office formula pablum, which will of course never go away).

There are a couple of interesting additional feminist points to note about this film:

Firstly — as you can see from the screenshots — the women are all topless and the children are naked. The cool thing about this is how they showed bodies and nudity as being normal and ordinary. The women — and yes, their breasts — are shown in a variety of shapes, and not fetishized: they’re just an ordinary part of the body. My kids were more interested in the fact that Kirikou is naked (so you can see his “zizi”), but not in a shameful, nervous giggling way, rather in terms of matter-of-fact curiosity about the body and about how Kirikou is like them, and also in terms of curiosity about customs (Kirikou is naked, Mowgli from The Jungle Book wears just an “undie,” etc.).

kirikou_village_women.png

Secondly, when the men return at the end of the film for their joyful reunion with their families, they come back singing and drumming kind of an interesting song, part of which is the following: “We are the men, we are the fathers, we are the sons, we are the brothers, we are the husbands, we are the nephews, we are the friends.” This is another one of those points that shouldn’t be unusual, but it is indeed unusual to see male characters defined in terms of their relationships — particularly to female characters — such as when Kirikou’s mother gets her husband back.

My few complaints concern how the film was translated into English. The voice of Karaba is not as good in the English version: she has kind of a generic Disney-villain voice, whereas in the French version she comes off as younger and more passionate, which fits the character better. Also, I’m disappointed that they translated “Karaba la Sorcière” as “Karaba the Sorceress.” That’s obviously the closest literal translation, but I think it would have been far better rendered as “Karaba the Witch” in the same way that another of my kids’ favorite characters — Winnie the Witch — was translated into French as “Pélagie la Sorcière.”

I give this film high marks in terms of overall artistic and entertainment quality in addition to its impressive portrayal of female characters.

Comments

  1. Bill Diamond says

    My previous comment seems to have been lost in the internets. I’ll try again:

    I respectfully disagree with your analysis. I found the film to be extraordinarily full of misandry. The portrayal of men being all killed is the premise of the village being virtualy all women. Why is violence against men okay in this day and age of the 21st century? And the remaining men being the icons of foolishness and the other man being close minded and superstitious? Is that all men are? Caricatures and targets of mockery?

    And the whole sorceress? I am deeply offended by the portray of women being evil vagina dentatas. The hair of Karaba is very emasculating and violent to the men. At the same time, it’s very opressive to women being noted by the phallic spikes of hair. Certainly a symbol of the men’s penises that she had taken from the male villagers.

    I think this movie is all around a poor choice for children. It is firstly absurd in it’s premise. Second, portray’s the children’s father figure in a poor light… first as weak and then as a foolish and close minded. And third, it encourages violence by women.

    What are the feelings of other readers? Do you share the same opinions?

  2. says

    But seriously,

    I’d just like to add one public service announcement for all of the many farkers who have commented on my earlier post to tell me that I need to stop getting so worked up over a little movie:

    This is a TV/movie review site.

    Sometimes movies get (and deserve) bad reviews. Shocking, I know, but true. If that upsets you, I’d like to direct your attention to a little site called Rotten Tomatoes where you can spend the rest of the afternoon telling all the authors there that they need to “chill out” and “stop taking movies so seriously.”

  3. says

    Bill, I deleted your comment because we’ve just been besieged by trolls who have nothing better to do than flood blogs with comments in an attempt to shut them down, and frankly these statements

    The hair of Karaba is very emasculating and violent to the men.

    and

    At the same time, it’s very opressive to women being noted by the phallic spikes of hair. Certainly a symbol of the men’s penises that she had taken from the male villagers.

    struck me as a disingenuous attempt to parody what you perceive as our silly criticisms. Because I found it unfathomable that someone who could write sentences properly could actually think a hairstyle could be violent or oppressive, at which point I concluded you were just trolling.

    That’s still my conclusion, but I’ll let it stand so others can have some input on that.

  4. says

    C.L., did this movie impart any gender-essentialist ideas? From your description it sounded like aside from cultural roles, people were depicted as doing what they had to do, not as behaving “like women” or “like men”.

    Also, the word “witch” originally referred to Wiccans, and was made pejorative by people hellbent on getting rid of them. Wiccans today are doing their best to reclaim the word (which in most people’s minds does not conjure up a real person burned at the stake so someone could seize her land for free). I don’t know if the people who translated the film were aware of this and wanted to avoid adding to the bad image of witches, but if so, right on. In any case, given the word’s history, I think it works out well that they avoided it. (I do get what you’re saying, though.)

  5. says

    What do you find about those quotes funny, a parody, or silly?

    To attempt an honest answer at this question (and presuming to speak for what Betacandy might say were she not currently otherwise occupied):

    When people mock feminist discourse, they insert a lot of what they assume we talk about. The assumptions include the idea that anything with certain shapes must be phallic and that therefore we, as feminists who hate men (and penises) will find those things invariably evil.

    C.L. Hansen’s post says nothing about hair, nothing about such shapes and nothing about anything phallic. This, in combination with the tone in your post being extremely overwrought, including an extremely high proportion of feminist stereotype-words and an extremely low proportion of commentary on how these ideas play into real-world gender issues (which is what we talk about on this site), pretty much convinces me that you’re far more interested in wasting our time than you are having a respectful discussion, disagreement or no.

  6. says

    Bill Diamond, this site is currently experiencing a massive influx of trolls. Our commenting policy, as stated below the comment box on every page, is generally to delete, “troll cap,” or disemvowel comments that we believe to be trolling, in order to keep discussions constructive. BetaCandy has already explained why she deleted your first comment, but has decided to give you a chance to show that you’re here to talk and not to troll. Go for it.

    C.L. Hanson, I’m really intrigued by the visual style of the film as shown in your screenshots. I wonder if I can track down a copy here?

  7. says

    Even though the word “witch” is pejorative, I think it better describes her role and the way the villagers percieved her. I can’t say for sure if it expressed gender-essentialist roles or not, but the people seemed more real than stereotyped.

  8. says

    Ravena — I encourage you to look for it, but unfortunately I haven’t had the time or money to come back to the U.S. (if that’s where you’re writing from) for a few years, so I can’t give you any tips. It has certainly been dubbed into English since the DVD we have has an English track.

  9. says

    Now that I’ve had a chance to actually slowly and thoughtfully read the *post* (sorry!), this does sound really great. I love films that show characters as having genuine motivations–it seems simple, but it’s so rare in our dichotomies and demonizations.

    I also like the way it sounds like it deals with self interest as a natural human tendency rather than glorifying certain people or categories (eg. “mothers”, “soldiers”, which are also often gendered) as overcoming it somehow.

  10. Patience St. James says

    Also, the word “witch” originally referred to Wiccans, and was made pejorative by people hellbent on getting rid of them. Wiccans today are doing their best to reclaim the word (which in most people’s minds does not conjure up a real person burned at the stake so someone could seize her land for free).

    While I will give you that the word “witch” originally referred to pagan and/or polythesitic people, I cannot agree that it originally meant Wiccans. To the best of my knowledge, the term ‘Wicca’ and related adjectives are Gardenerian in origin, formed from the OE wic- root (meaning witch or wizard; an appropriate formation). This is not to say that the religious/ritual tradition did not survive from pre-Christian Europe, but that the word ‘Wicca’ and derivatives are inappropriate given their recent origin. You are essentially saying that because an OE term is the origin of our Modern English ‘witch’ and because the OE has become popular again, the new (very specific) meaning of the OE is the same as the ModE. This is simply untrue. The people persecuted as witches would not likely have identified as Wiccan, nor possibly even as pagan of any sort; the majority, as best I know, were as Christian as their neighbours.

  11. says

    Thanks, Patience. I’ve heard a couple of versions, but your research looks clear. The fact remains that I’ve talked to Wiccans who find the pejorative use of the word “witch” unhelpful in their attempt to practice their religion in regions that are still astonishingly bigoted and superstitious. Which I offered as a possible reason for the movie not using that word. :)

  12. Mecha says

    Why is violence against men okay in this day and age of the 21st century? And the remaining men being the icons of foolishness and the other man being close minded and superstitious? Is that all men are? Caricatures and targets of mockery?

    There are very few examples of 1) Most/all men being killed/excluded from a children’s movie 2) The rest of the men being foolish (and note that one of the two men wasn’t, but was in fact an example of wisdom! As she said, the poles of both wisdom and foolishness were men. Does the one rule out the other for you? Do all men have to be great for it not to be misandrist? I hope not!)

    In contrast, there are a GREAT many examples of women being excluded and not treated as people. If that is how you really feel, then the logical conclusion is that you also think that the vast majority of media is sick mysoginistic crap which you wouldn’t show your children.

    I see that you’re trying to build on the general complaint that men are often shown as foolish in, say, sitcoms (which is true) but that is actually patriarichal normative misandry, which is to say, it’s society telling men ‘you’re not any better than stupid close minded sex obsessed sports-loving beasts’ (which I personally despise as a message.) Is that what this movie describes? Especially since it 1) has two men, one wise and one foolish and 2) the men live and come back and are welcomed back _very happily_? I feel as if you are stretching here. Your report/impression seems to directly conflict with the actual details of the movie that have been given so far.

    It feels to me, based on the original report as if a single negative portrayal of men (which is all this movie has) and a temporary (rare and not societally supported!) what-if premise have allowed you to box a movie which actually celebrates bringing back men and isolated men being wise and foolish both as misandrist. If you never allow anyone to do anything bad to men, ever, or else it’s misandry, well… hell, isn’t that the complaint people think that feminist have against media (which they don’t?) That ‘nothing bad can happen to women’? If we don’t get to make the argument, you don’t get to make the argument.

    If you’re interested in the discussion, and there are further details to the movie that help support your idea that weren’t initially stated in C.L.’s initial post, I’d love to actually hear them. If not… well, what does support your point?

    -Mecha

  13. SunlessNick says

    Also, the word “witch” originally referred to Wiccans, and was made pejorative by people hellbent on getting rid of them. - BetaCandy

    That’s a bit of an exaggeration. Originally it meant something like “shaper,” and was generic, a bit like how we might use magician – also, like shaman or priest, witch denotes/d a practice more than a belief system.

    [That said, I’m a pagan, so I’m emotionally in the place you describe; “witch” used sysnonymously with evil makes me growl. With the perculiar exception of the film Warlock]

    To the best of my knowledge, the term ‘Wicca’ and related adjectives are Gardenerian in origin, formed from the OE wic- root (meaning witch or wizard; an appropriate formation). - Patience St. James

    Wicca as a proper noun is, but “wicca” and “wicce” (m and f) are legitimate OE and ME words.

    Heh, the self-trumpeting pedant will now leave you alone. :)

  14. says

    Thanks, Nick, and thanks again Patience. I didn’t mean to misstate anything, and I thank you both for your corrections.

    And I certainly didn’t mean to derail the thread with an aside!

  15. DM says

    Karaba is a great villain who’s a complete character with motivation and a back-story in addition to having fabulous evil powers and a look to die for.

    Oh, yes. That woman looked fierce. I couldn’t take my eyes off her for a moment. I really admired what she said to Kirikou near the end of the movie. Talk about a feminist moment. Kirikou’s mother especially was all kinds of cool. I imagine in different hands she would have been a fearful, worrisome obstacle to Kirikou’s heroism because mothers always only hold their bolder, wiser sons back, don’tcha know.

    I find it sort of dismaying that a single animated folktale made back in 1998 addressed evildoing, human nature, and the vulnerability of heroes with more sensitivity and complexity than some of the best-selling adult novels I’ve read, or prime time shows I’ve seen, or even the entire Disney franchise, and threw in magic, humor, adventure and a cast of varied women on top of the pile. I guess what it comes down to is the people who create, not the magnitude of the creation.

  16. says

    I find it sort of dismaying that a single animated folktale made back in 1998 addressed evildoing, human nature, and the vulnerability of heroes with more sensitivity and complexity than some of the best-selling adult novels I’ve read, or prime time shows I’ve seen, or even the entire Disney franchise, and threw in magic, humor, adventure and a cast of varied women on top of the pile. I guess what it comes down to is the people who create, not the magnitude of the creation.

    Very true. Sometimes it seems like the studios aren’t even trying though, particularly when it comes to kids’ films. The thing is that all of the formulas and stock scenes are new to kids, hence seem original to them, and are the easiest thing for the studios to come up with. The standard Disney movie sure gets tiresome for the parents watching with the kids though, which is why I’m happy when my kids like a film like this one.

  17. says

    Sometimes it seems like the studios aren’t even trying though, particularly when it comes to kids’ films.

    I don’t think they’re trying at all. I think they’ve just gotten more set in their ideas about what sells, and how you have to pander to the target audience’s prejudices. I never watched much kids’ programming as a kid, but looking back at the shows and music videos and pop culture I grew up with… things have, IMO, definitely backslid.

  18. says

    looking back at the shows and music videos and pop culture I grew up with… things have, IMO, definitely backslid.

    I think so too overall, but it may be just an impression.

    It would be interesting to see a study giving stats on the proportion of female characters per kids’ movie and TV show (and how many are in the stereotyped roles of mom or love interest) and how it has changed over time. There are positive shows for kids today (Dora), and negative ones from my day (Smurfs), but these poles don’t give the whole picture of what kids are learning about gender.

    I definitely agree about the studios getting set in their ideas about what sells.

  19. says

    “Witch” and “sorceress” is one of those cases in English where we have two words which have – practically – the same essential meaning, but latter carries the connotations of being a far grander/more up-market equivalent. “House” and “mansion” (from “maison”) is another example. This because one has existed in some form since before medieval times while the other comes from French which was brought in by the Norman invaders, and was for a time the language of the nobility.

    While “witch” would be a closer analogue in terms of its connotations, the use of “sorceress” in the official translation is, I imagine, simply down to lip flaps. “Sorceress” is, relatively, almost the same as “sorcière” – “witch,” on the other hand, is but a single-syllable word; it would require further adaptation of the script to make up for the lost syllables.

    While Kirikou and the Sorceress does have a USA DVD release, I’d recommend that, if you have a widescreen TV, you don’t get that but instead import the special edition released in Canada (as Kirikou et la sorcière). This has the film in anamorphic widescreen rather than letterboxed and, moreover, includes a second – in my my opinion better – film by Ocelot, the TV series compilation Princes et princesses. The box and menus are French but both have English subtitles and Kirikou still has the English dub as an option.

  20. says

    So I put this movie in my Netflix queue way back when you made this post, C.L., and then I just kept bumping it back down every time a new romantic comedy or sci fi film became available, and only just watched it this weekend.

    Oh man should I have ever watched it sooner! I loved it, for all the reasons you talk about. And though the animation was a little bit static in many places (very repetitive in the dance sequences particularly), I thought the overall visual design was gorgeous.

    I’ll be buying a copy to add to my library of children’s films, I think.

  21. mammoth love says

    Wow.
    Great film.
    Deep knowledge in it.
    It would be good for all children to see.
    Films like this teach all developping individuals a lot.
    About life, and about people. And, thus, about your self.

    Enemies and all opposing sides are all people.
    Living beings, children of the universe.
    And whenever these brothers and sisters harm eachother in any way it usually comes from pain, fear (insecurity), or lack of understanding.
    No matter if the ‘enemy’ is a sorceress oppressing a tribe, or a lonely person arguing with others online about childrens films.

  22. Casey says

    I read your synopsis of this movie long before I ever found it, I just watched this on YouTube in French with English subtitles and it was great! I admit I even teared up at the end. :D
    (although Bill Diamond’s feminist parody trolling up top still leaves a bad taste in my mouth…I keep thinking of him when I look at Karaba’s (AWESOME) hair)

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