TORONTO -- By any measure, Babar, the ubiquitous king of Elephantland who has delighted children all over the world since he was created by French author Jean de Brunhoff 60 years ago, is a populist king.
But is he ready for K mart? And wearing polyester suits, yet?
After two years of bitter preliminary legal wrangling in a New York federal court, those elephantine questions, among others, will be put to trial in January as a Manhattan artist and the owner of a Toronto animation company battle over who will control the financially lucrative marketing rights to the reigning monarch of Celesteville, the capital Babar built for his wife.
At stake is millions of dollars in entertainment and merchandising revenue as toy factories churn out more than 300 Babar products, including stuffed Babars, Babar pajamas, Babar lunch buckets, Babar wallpaper, Babar furniture, Babar shoes and even crystal Babar figurines that sell for $200 apiece.
But apart from the profits that Babar and friends -- his wife, Celeste; their precocious son, Arthur; and the mischievous monkey, Zephir -- have brought to their legal guardians, a more cerebral issue is to be decided in the New York civil suit: Is Babar's wholesome, pristine image as the sagacious and benevolent leader of a Utopian animal kingdom being degraded by over-commercialization and the kind of quick-buck marketing blitz that revived the fame of Batman and Dick Tracy? Or should Babar be more elitist, given his French ancestry, and spend his time at F.A.O. Schwartz instead of the discount stores?
Whatever the outcome of the civil suit in New York's U.S. District Court, Babar already has wandered into a world that is more menacing even than his occasional encounters with Retaxes, King of the Rhinos, and his escape from cannibals on a deserted island.
It is a world inhabited by high-powered New York law firms; a Madison Avenue public relations company, which also works for Donald Trump; court injunctions; restraining orders; and libel claims.
It is an unfamiliar world, because, as U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Conboy observed in a preliminary ruling, "In the world of Babar, all colors are pastel, all rainstorms are brief and all foes are more or less benign. Harmony invariably banishes discord and a serene sensibility and benevolence emanates from Babar, and delivers his family and subjects from the harshness and misery of life."
Babar's real-life troubles began early in 1987, when Clifford Ross, a New York artist and businessman signed an agreement to buy the film, television and merchandising rights to the famous pachyderm from Laurent de Brunhoff, the oldest son of the animal's creator, who wrote 30 Babar books following his father's death.
The elder de Brunhoff, recalling stories told to him by his mother, began drawing Babar stories for his two children, and in 1931 started publishing them.
Laurent de Brunhoff, who lives in Middletown, Conn., and continues to write Babar books, said he was too upset by the bitter legal battle to talk about it.
"I don't want to be involved," he said in a brief telephone interview. "It's a very uncomfortable situation."
But Ross said that for years the children's book author had resisted selling the Babar marketing rights until Ross came along and convinced him he could do it tastefully and retain the "classic literary quality" of the stories.
However, Ross said, he soon realized that Babar was too big for him to handle alone, so he signed an agreement assigning the marketing rights to Toronto's Nelvana Ltd., an animation studio and entertainment company, while retaining the right to participate in marketing decisions.
For the last two years, Ross and Nelvana have been feuding over that contract, with Ross charging that Nelvana has repeatedly signed licensing agreements with toy manufacturers without consulting him on such questions as quality control, and with Nelvana claiming that Ross has repeatedly obstructed its efforts to successfully market Babar products.
Ross Won Round 1
In April 1989, Conboy agreed that Nelvana had violated part of the contract and enjoined the Toronto firm from signing any franchise agreements without Ross's approval, or from granting manufacturing licenses without quality control provisions.
Even though the injunction was upheld on appeal, Ross claims that Nelvana has violated the order and is still marketing Babar without fully consulting him.
In the midst of his bid to abrogate the contract with Nelvana and recover full rights to Babar in an amended claim, Ross went public with his accusations against Nelvana, which prompted Nelvana not only to file a counterclaim of libel, but to put the New York public relations firm of Howard J. Rubenstein Associates Inc. on the case to get its side of the story out.
Cotton Only, Please
To Michael Hirsch, Nelvana's chairman, the case boils down to greed and "snobbism" with Ross not only wanting all of the profits from Babar products and animations, but seeking to limit the sale of the elephant family to an "elite market that is socially acceptable to him."
Ross, Hirsch said in an interview, demanded that Babar's familiar green suit be made of 100 percent cotton instead of a synthetic fabric "because it appeals to his upper-class background" and that Babar products not be mass marketed in K mart and other discount stores because they are inappropriate to the classical image of the character.
"He's being a royalist. He's saying that only rich kids can have Babar," Hirsch said. "I grew up in a middle-class family, but by his standard, I wouldn't qualify to buy Babar. Even de Brunhoff wouldn't qualify."
He also said that Nelvana, which has produced a Babar feature film and 65 episodes of a Babar television series, has a special department that carefully monitors the quality of all Babar products for which it grants licenses.
Hirsch also denied that Nelvana had circumvented Ross in marketing decisions and said that evidence in the trial will prove his case.
For his part, Ross denied the allegations of snobbism, but said, "I do believe that every property is different. Babar is entirely different. Babar is unique. He was known to an educated, mostly urban audience.
"The question is, how do we make this something more people can share, but for a long time?"
He added, "Babar is the opposite of the Simpsons. The Simpsons are a hoot, but to treat them the same as Babar is an injustice to Babar. ... I'm not interested in a quick hit. Let me build this like a great franchise name.
"It's got to be done responsibly. These things take time. If you try to eat too much, too quickly, you get sick."
No Solomon-like Answer
As the Babar case heads back to the courtroom, there seems to be little hope for resolving the dispute with the kind of Solomon-like wisdom for which the lovable King of Elephantland is noted.
Or, as Conboy noted in his preliminary opinion, "Would that the values of Babar's world were evident in the court papers filed in this lawsuit."