A REFRESHING change from the Disneyfied setting of "The Lion King," which somehow made Africa look a bit like an air-brushed theme park in Southern California, the animated feature "Kirikou and the Sorceress" feels less like a cartoon than a painting. With flat, theatrical-backdrop-style scenery inspired by post-impressionist artist Henri Rousseau and characters modeled after the stiffly formal figures of Egyptian art, the film -- based loosely on a traditional West African folk tale about a heroic boy who challenges a wicked sorceress -- may take American eyes some getting used to.
It's worth it.
Written and directed by Frenchman Michel Ocelot and dubbed by anonymous, English-speaking actors from the original French, "Kirikou" is structured as a series of adventures surrounding Kirikou, a precocious baby who speaks from inside the womb and who demonstrates an advanced sense of what he wants, once he's out. The first couple of challenges involve convincing his playmates that, despite his diminutive size (he's about as big as a newborn kitten), he's got game. After rescuing them from a walking tree and a magical river boat with a mind of its own, Kirikou's neighbors have a newfound respect for him. And when he reverses the enchantress Karaba's spell that has dried up the village's spring water, he's really in good.
Now if only he can do something about all the men of the village that she has supposedly eaten. Give him time.
What sets "Kirikou's" unorthodox hero apart is that he isn't merely content to accept a series of tall-tale confrontations between good and evil, albeit ones that he's on the winning side of. Kirikou, you see, keeps asking why the sorceress is such a rotter. And that exploration of the nature and cause of evil -- not to mention the implicit assumption that by removing the root, you can alter its manifestation -- is just one of the things that makes this movie so remarkable.
Coupled with the fact that the plant and animal life (hoopoes, zorilles and ground squirrels, among other beasties) really look African, and that the film's original score is by the great contemporary Senegalese musician Youssou N'Dour, "Kirikou and the Sorceress's" surprising honesty about the banality of evil makes the movie -- even with all its magic -- feel truly authentic.
KIRIKOU AND THE SORCERESS (Unrated, 74 minutes) -- Contains unerotic female toplessness, a pantless, preternaturally resourceful toddler and a couple of threatening animals. At the AFI Silver Theatre.