Azur and Asmar (Azur et Asmar)
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Lately, animated films seem to be a dime a dozen. There are so many released each year, in fact, that, after a while, it’s hard to tell them apart. Writer/director Michel Ocelot’s simple but striking Azur and Asmar, however, is definitely unlike any other animated film you’ll see this year.

As children, Azur and Asmar were raised together—even though Azur was the blue-eyed, blonde-haired son of a nobleman and Asmar was the black-haired, brown-eyed son of Azur’s nanny. Like brothers, they played together and fought over just about everything—until Azur’s father decided to send him away to school. Once Azur was gone, his father had no need for Nanny and Asmar, so he sent them away with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Years later, a grown-up Azur is still haunted by his nanny’s stories of the Djinn Fairy, who’s been held imprisoned for years, waiting for a handsome prince to free her. Against his father’s wishes, he sets out to free the fairy, but he soon finds himself shipwrecked in a strange land, where his blue eyes are seen as bad luck.

Forced to pose as a blind beggar, Azur travels through the villages until he finds his nanny, who’s become a wealthy merchant. He also discovers that his brother, Asmar, is once again his rival. Both are determined to rescue the Djinn Fairy—but only one can succeed.

Originally produced in French and Arabic (though the version I saw was dubbed in English), Azur and Asmar is a simple and straightforward animated fable about acceptance and brotherhood. It’s a familiar story—and, at times, the pace drags a bit (especially in a few scenes toward the end of the film). But it also has its share of action, with plenty of challenges and adventures (as well as a few surprises) along the way. And, in the end, it presents an important message.

Meanwhile, the film is full of fascinating characters—from the scheming beggar, Crapoux, who offers to lead blind Azur through the villages, to the delightful Princess Chamsous Sabah, who spends her life trapped in her palace, dreaming of the outside world. Each one adds life—and interest—to the story.

The most distinctive part of Azur and Asmar, however, is the animation. Like the story, the animation is simple—with lifelike, three-dimensional characters on a plain, two-dimensional background. It feels choppy at times, and it definitely takes some getting used to—especially if you’re used to big-budget animated features. Still, in its simplicity, it’s often strikingly beautiful. The vibrant colors of the spice market and Nanny’s garden are absolutely stunning, and they make Azur and Asmar worth a look.

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