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.
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.
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.).
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.