Babar isn’t your average elephant:
- He’s French . . . well, insomuch as he’s the creation of French children’s book author Jean de Brunhoff, who first wrote about “le petit elephant” in Histoire de Babar (1931).
- He’s a king, because in Brunhoff’s jungle the elephants rule, and like “The Lion King” this kid had royal parents.
- He’s an orphan who loses one parent, then another, which thrust him into the role/rule of “king” at a young age.
- Like the other elephants in his sophisticated herd (and like any self-respecting cartoon character) he walks upright.
- And, like Curious George, he has a human for a friend. Instead of The Man with the Yellow Hat, Babar has The Old Lady. Seriously.
He’s beloved, but for whatever reason, Babar just hasn’t translated as well to television as Curious George has, or The Berenstain Bears.
The small screen isn’t all THAT demanding, so I suspect that what was enchanting in 1931 wasn’t equally beguiling in 60 years later. Or maybe more people are beginning to think as critics who feel the books were proponents of neocolonialism. Or maybe they noticed that Babar marries his cousin. Still, there’s a naive charm about the TV series (1989-2002) that can make preschoolers connect with it, and those who grew up with the books—but that’s about all.
“Babar: The Movie” uses the same style of animation and some of the same voice talents as the TV series: Gordon Pinsent (King Babar), Lisa Yamanaka (Isabelle), Elizabeth Hanna (The Old Lady), Chris Wiggins (Cornelius), and Stephen Ouimette (Pompadour). John Stocker replaced Jeff Pustil as Zephir, while Charles Kerr took over for Allen Stewart-Coates (Rataxes), Amos Crawley replaced Stuart Stone (Alexander), and Hanna provided the voice for Queen Celeste (voiced in the TV series by Dawn Greenhalgh). But there are enough carry-overs to make for a comfortable transition to the big screen.
Parents should know, however, that the bulk of this story is a sort of Middle Kingdom battle between rhinos and elephants, with the rhinos initiating the conflict by burning elephant villages and taking the parents prisoner, then sending the young ones scurrying for cover. Yes, there were such conflicts in one of the books and several of the TV episodes, but here the dominate.
That’s funny, because “Babar: The Movie” begins with a tame title sequence that showcases the cheery song “Elephantland March” during a ceremonial Victory Parade. But that night, as Babar and Celeste tuck their little ones into bunk beds and they ask for a story, he tells them the long (and I do mean long) tale of how the Victory Parade came to be named. That’s when cheeriness flies out the window.
Through a bedtime story Babar relates how many years ago a young Celeste came to him asking for help. Her village was being invaded by Rataxes, king of the rhinos, she cried, and the rhinos were taking elephants prisoner. But Babar’s advisors were reluctant to believe her. “Civilized animals simply don’t go around snatching each other.” The advisors sing about forming a committee to deal with the problem, but that’s not enough for the young king. He trades places with his cousin (“All baby elephants look alike”) and, like Simba leaving the Prideland, ventures into territory that’s held by the animal enemy.
After that, it’s battle after battle, which makes this “Babar” feel more like an animated superhero cartoon than the tonally mellow books. The initial raid on the village is surprisingly graphic, with up-angle shots of menacing rhinos growling and torching all the houses, pulling out mothers who beg for their children and putting them in chains and hauling them away, leaving the children to run into the jungle for safety. Why they’re being rounded up isn’t all that clear, though, other than This is what evil creatures do.
The whole rhino-elephant battle goes on way too long, and makes for tedious viewing. Pugnacious little boys might find it interesting, but at the risk of gender stereotyping, I can’t believe the same of little girls.
The only respite from battle planning and battles comes in a “Jungle Book” moment when Babar encounters Zephir, leader of the monkeys, who sings “You Got to Learn the Ropes.” But we’ve seen this done before, and done better. Same with the crocodile with an inexplicable Australian accent that turns out to be an ally. Or with a scene that seems straight out of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
When the smoke clears, “Babar: The Movie” isn’t as exciting as you’d expect, and it isn’t as charming as the books. Imdb.com lists the run-time at 70 minutes, while the cover notes reads 80 minutes. I didn’t time it, but it sure felt long.
“Babar: The Movie” looks to be presented in 1.37:1 aspect ratio, though the box claims it’s 1.33:1. Either way, there’s a more-than-slight layer of grain throughout, and rather than sporting bold colors these tend toward a pastel palette . . . or else the colors are simply washed-out. It’s not a bad picture, but if you look at the cover art and expect it to look like that, well, it simply doesn’t.
The audio is an English or Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0, with subtitles in English SDH. Curious that there’s nothing for French speakers, given Babar’s origins. The sound itself is a little flat and heavily centered on the front middle speaker.
The only bonus feature is an episode from the TV series: “Monkey Business.”
“Babar: The Movie” feels like a film in search of an audience. Youngsters who should be the primary viewers may find the rhino-elephant battles too frightening or too repetitive. And once you get past a certain age, you’re too old for this simple narrative of a little elephant king—unless he’s among your cherished childhood memories that will live forever through nostalgia.