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[Animation First 2020] The Prince's Voyage Screening and Jean-François Laguionie in Conversation

Kelly N. Barahona reports on the U.S. Premiere of The Prince’s Voyage and the Q&A with the filmmakers, which took place at the Animation First Festival 2020.



The 2020 edition of the Animation First festival had Jean-François Laguionie as the Guest of Honor, and for valid reason. Laguionie has a rich history of art work, animated shorts, and feature films to his name, and the festival was proud to showcase both the old and new. In a similar blend of old and new, Laguionie’s latest animated feature proves to be an interesting experience for audiences of all ages.

THE MOVIE


Released in 2019, The Prince’s Voyage is Laguionie’s follow up to his 1990’s animated film A Monkey’s Tale. A common concern about any sequel is whether the new story can stand up on its own merits, especially if there’s a big time gap between movies. Luckily, The Prince’s Voyage provides enough information so that even if a person has not seen the first movie (as many people at the festival likely must confess to), a person would be able to follow this film.

The Prince of the Laankos
The film starts off in a Winter not-quite-Wonderland. The titular character is Prince of the Laankos, an older but adventurous monkey. He is attempting to cross the frozen water with his army right behind. However, when the team ends up walking on literal thin ice, the prince ends up washing ashore a vastly different land. The Prince is eventually found by a young boy named Tom, who the Prince says is similar to another boy he knew in the past named Kom. This comparison is a reference to The Monkey’s Tale, and the film shows brief flashbacks to the Prince and Kom to explain the déjà vu the elder is feeling.

Prince and Tom in the city of Niouton
Curiously, Tom is the only one who understands the Prince’s foreign language. Tom’s adoptive parents, Professor Victor Abervrach and his wife Elisabeth start getting heavily involved in scientific studies of the washed-up stranger, albeit in different ways.

The Professor is determined to use the Prince, with Tom as an interpreter, as proof that there exist other lands with monkeys that have similar evolutionary history to the Professor’s city of Niouton (pronounced like “Newton”). While the Professor’s ego is inflated -- he largely wishes to be accepted back into his circle at The Academy of Modern Sciences -- he is also sincerely invested in his scientific beliefs. He believes that the Prince coming from another land shows that other lands exist and that different cultures have been established by the monkeys. Several years earlier, Professor Abervrach had been mocked by his peers for suggesting other lands exist where monkeys have evolved just as much as they have in Niouton, and he was kicked out of the organization. The Professor realizes the amount of potential the Prince’s existence brings to the table, and part of his motive is to prove he is right to the world, and also to himself.

Elisabeth, when she is not questioning her husband’s actions or mothering Tom, is often seen creating chemical mixtures to slow down the expanding forest. She is often stoic and unimpressed at the Prince’s antics, though slowly over time reveals her humanity. Elisabeth fears losing her laboratory due to her husband’s demands to be right to the Academy, but she also fears Tom losing an important figure, the Prince, should things go very wrong. In addition, Elisabeth at one point states that she feels sad that she must use science to kill nature, though her assistant suggests it’s not a bad thing.

Elisabeth concocting a chemical mix
The Professor’s and Elisabeth’s assistant, Nelly, proves to be the much more openly compassionate and down-to-earth lady, as she often tends to the Prince’s needs while he is kept hidden in a run-down museum. The Prince is examined daily by the scientists, and Tom comes by each day to talk some more and build a genuine connection.

As one can guess based on clothes and locations, this movie has a strong Victorian flavor. Even the movie’s themes are reminiscent of the 19th century. For example, the Professor somewhat disrespects the Prince by treating the royal man like he was a savage, when in actuality the Prince knows Latin and understands concepts like astronomy and horses.

Because the Prince is a foreigner, much of the movie is seen through his eyes of amusement (or bemusement, in some cases). From manufacturing new items just for the sake of having new items, to scientific breakthroughs making city living easier to maintain but also ruining the natural world, to even the idea of a city’s residents not being able to show emotions out in the open, the Prince observes many odd traits in Niouton that a modern day watcher may describe as “Victorian.”

Prince and Tom at the carnival

On the note of emotional openness, the film presents an interesting scene after the main characters are introduced and the scientific routine gets established. One afternoon, Tom and the Prince decide to sneak out of the museum and explore into the neighboring city of lights. They enter the city and begin to ride a trolley going down the main street. The Prince notes how the woman next to him is stone-faced, and how no one besides him and Tom are actually talking or emoting. Only when the trolley goes close to the edge of the forest do the Nioukos react: they escape the trolley in fear of the overgrowing nature.

After a quick roundabout, the trolley goes back into the city, this time with people in costumes and masks. Tom notes that it is evening and that people can have fun at this time. The Prince, also wanting some fun, wishes to see the carnival up-close, and the two head into a tent that is playing a film homage to King Kong. The Prince laughs very loudly at this film, feeling amused that the Nioukos were so scared for the monster’s lady hostage. The other people are not so amused, however, so Tom and the Prince leave the fairgrounds. After escaping some masked hooligans in the streets, the Prince and Tom return back to the museum, leaving the Professor none the wiser.

Nelly and the Prince in the museum preparing for the Academy

Eventually, the Professor deems he has enough evidence to show the Academy and sets a date for a public presentation with the Prince coming along. Alas, the Academy rejects the Professor’s claims. The Prince is locked up in a cage and is treated as a wild animal instead of an intelligent monkey. On the night before he is to be killed, Tom and his family and friends help coordinate an escape. They meet with Elisabeth one last time, who informs them they must go into the forest to avoid arrest.

Canopy, though not known by everyone, is a place in the forest where monkeys live high in the treetops and have designed a functional and communal way of living. There’s little strife and worry in this town of the treetops. Tom and the Prince end up finding this place while journeying through the trees. It is then revealed that years ago, Tom fell from the meters-high city and was later found by Victor and Elisabeth. Tom’s odd traits -- being able to talk to animals and trees and being more “wild” in general -- made him feel separated from the Nioukos but all the more connected to the people of Canopy.

The movie ends when Tom realizes his place is to help the monkeys of Canopy thrive. The Prince, meanwhile, ends up feeling bored and disengaged. The monkey monarch ends up creating a flying machine, and after a final conversation and goodbye with Tom, the Prince flies off into the sunset. The film closes here, but it is implied that the Prince goes seeking a new place with new people, and the adventurous spirit inside is excited to see what comes next in life.

The Prince and Tom exploring through the forest



THE CONVERSATION


Jean-François Laguionie

Following the movie’s premiere, Animation First held a Conversation with the Guest of Honor and maker of the movie, Jean-François Laguionie. Several people were seated at 3:45pm in the FIAF Skyroom to discuss not only his film career, but also to learn about his work as a visual artist, a writer, and a co-worker. Laguionie had a translator on-site to translate his French to English so that the entire audience was able to understand.

Laguionie started the discussion with an overview of his early days. He noted how he began his artistic career not as an animator, but as a theater aficionado and a lover of live-action. For the latter, he noted he enjoyed genres like musicals, westerns, and police films. In fact, it wasn’t until he saw animated films and shorts from places like Poland and Czechoslovakia did he realize he could do similar work. Later in his life, he’d end up making a dozen animated shorts in the span of 15 years.

Anik Leray (image courtesy of intersinema.com and mubi.com)
A close colleague of Laguionie would be Anik Leray, and she sat adjacent to him during the conversation. The two have worked on multiple projects together; not counting The Prince’s Voyage, the duo worked together on the 2011 animated film The Painting and the 2004 animated film Black Mor's Island. Leray has also written stories that other directors made into films, such as the 2009 film directed by Dominique Monféry titled Eleanor's Secret.

A curious child asked Laguionie and Leray how newcomers could get started in animation and what was most important. The duo agreed that making shorts or some small animations to start was a good move, and they gave the following advice:

Once you have the story and the characters, you can start drawing.


Laguionie also spoke on the differences between American sensibilities and French sensibilities when it comes to animated works. He said the difference is hard to define. He and Leray agreed, though, that getting funding for animated works is easier in France than it is in America, largely due to the number of public funding sources in the European country. Leray added that while public funding cannot pay for an entire film in France, it could pay for a big part.

For the last portion of the panel, Laguionie showcased a sneak-peak at his next animated work, Slocum. The 10-minute French animatic had no subtitles, yet the basic outline was a child reflecting on his father’s behaviors at home. Laguionie joked that part of the inspiration for the film was a boat in his father’s home that never once saw the ocean. He then added a more serious inspiration, at least for the film’s title, is the historical Joshua Slocum. Slocum was the first man to go around the world via the sea, alone, in the late 19th century.

Funnily enough, Laguionie noted that he is a little afraid of the sea in real life. And with that bit of honesty, Laguionie had one last thing to tell the audience about animation:

Sincerity is the most important element in artisanal films.


If nothing else can be taken away from the conversation, then one should be able to see how devoted Laguionie, Leray, and the others must have been to make The Prince’s Voyage come to life, especially considering it’s a follow up to a 1990’s film. There’s no better way to explain what a sincere storyteller, a sincere animator, acts like.

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