Philippe Moins chronicles the long road taken to get Jacques Ry Girerds Raining Cats and Frogs to the big screen.
Director Jacques Rémy Girerd and his La Prophétie des Grenouilles (Raining Cats and Frogs) go up against mammoth animation competition in France this winter. All images © Folimage 2002.
This Christmas, French cinemas will witness a rather unusual contest: squaring up to the Goliath that is Finding Nemo (expected to do the same record business as it has elsewhere) is a tiny competitor, La Prophétie des Grenouilles (Raining Cats and Frogs) directed by Jacques Rémy Girerd. It is the first totally French produced animated feature since Le Roi et Loiseau (The King and Mr. Bird) (1980). It is also the first feature to emerge from the Folimage studio in Valence (an average sized town in the Drôme region, in southern France), which has already produced a number of quality TV series such as Girerds Ma Petite Planète Chérie and, through its artists residency scheme, Michael Dudok de Wits Le Moine et le Poisson/The Monk and the Fish.
However futile it may be to try and compare the two films, and however much the final box office results are a foregone conclusion, the industry as a whole is highly curious to see how this French film, released with far fewer prints than Finding Nemo, will perform.
Theres already a favorable predisposition toward the film, since recently a section of the national film press has switched from its former condescension towards animation to a more welcoming attitude in general and French animation in particular.
And the studio certainly possesses all the ingredients for a success story. Folimage was created from scratch by enthusiastic amateurs, initially with almost no money, and based outside Paris. Learning as they went along, in an area with little cinematic culture, over time they produced a string of successes, an achievement crowned by winning the Cartoon dOr (1) for Lenfant au Grelot/Charlies Christmas, a TV special directed by Girerd and an Oscar for one of the filmmakers from the residency program, Dudok de Wit (who made Le Moine et le Poisson/The Monk and the Fish there).
Throughout this period, Folimage has jealously guarded its specificity, prioritizing personal short films, humanistic television series and a truly impressive diversification of its activities, with a school, the artists residency scheme and an annual one-day festival in Valence.
Many are betting on a new Kirikou effect, a reference to the Michel Ocelot film that caused a sensation in France before going on to achieve a very honorable international career. The difference today is that everyone is much more conscious of what is at stake, and La Prophétie has received substantially greater public funding, although its budget was relatively quite small.
La Prophétie has arrived, safe and sound, despite the turbulent waves buffeting French film production, following the upheavals at the Vivendi Universal group.
A Childrens Book Comes to Life
La Prophétie des Grenouilles features a small family, Tom and his adoptive parents Ferdinand and Juliette, who are spending the summer holidays with Lili, a girl of Toms age. Lilis parents run a family zoo, the kind of small amusement park, which can still be found along French county roads. Everything takes place in a region whose similarity to southern France is no coincidence.
Lilis parents have gone off to Africa in search of crocodiles, leaving their daughter in the capable hands of Ferdinand and Juliette, who are also looking after the zoo. Its summertime, amidst a sweltering heat wave, and theres something a little strange in this well-ordered little world. Everythings fun and games, until the day some frogs warn the two children about an impending disaster; another flood is about to happen. When the first thunderclaps are heard, Ferdinand decides to shelter the household in the barn. The ingenious retired sea captain uses a tractor wheel to transform the building into an ark with room for the animals from the zoo.
The story develops into an exploration of the co-existence in an enclosed space of humans and animals, herbivores and carnivores alike. Whilst the potatoes brought aboard satisfy the humans appetites for French fries, tension arises between animal herbivores and carnivores. Lions and wolves look hungrily at passing sheep. The human characters must find a way to persuade their animal friends to observe a truce until the waters recede.
The story, deliberately kept simple, was co-scripted by Antoine Lanciaux, Iouri Tcherenkov and Girerd. Linear and with little in the way of surprise elements, it benefits from an approach that highlights the comic and poignant detail. The anthropomorphic behavior of the animals offers considerable potential as a couple of elephants, immobilised by the lack of space, carry on like a pair of cranky elderly pensioners, whilst other animals philosophize and embark on endless discussions as only the French can do.
Girerd and his team have chosen to animate Lili and Tom in relatively realistic manner, and this realism is reflected in their language, which is rooted in empathetic observation of the world of children and their favorite expressions. Girerds own daughter voices the character of Lili.
The freshness of the drawings is closer to book illustration than to cartoon characters. Folimage has taken advantage of all the recent developments in 2D and compositing to give life to a graphic style that is quite unusual, especially in feature films. The result is persuasive; the richness of the materials used for the backgrounds marries beautifully with the handling of the animated characters. Ukrainian animator and filmmaker Iouri Tcherenkov, based at the Folimage studio for more than 10 years now, served as graphic creator. Jean-Loup Felicioli worked on the backgrounds. In many respects it recalls some of the short films made at the studio, most obviously in Tcherenkovs own La Grande Migration and Trofimovas Le Tout Petit Prince. The films release is accompanied by a novelization and an illustrated album.
Casting, French Style
To give voice to his characters, Girerd has called upon some of the major names amongst established French acting talent. They also happen to come from a generation that was active in popular cinema in the early 70s such as Annie Girardot and Michel Galabru, which may well appeal to parents and even grandparents. For the most part, the cast (Anouk Grimberg, Michel Piccoli,) are not professional voice dubbing artists but well known for their live-action film performances, so this was a new experience for them. Whilst the prevailing fashion today is to ask celebrities to lend their voices to cartoon characters, Girerd has smartly opted for a cast of big names who are also experienced film professionals.
A Deliberately Unusual Production Approach
Drawing on the experience and human resources of a studio that has been active for 20 years, La Prophétie remains however quite unusual at a time when nearly every European production has to credit a multiplicity of co-production partners. Initially conceived as a 52-minute TV special, the film soon developed into a real feature film project aimed at theatrical release. Studio Canal, an almost indispensable partner in France, has been on board since 2000. Then came the CNC (Centre national de la cinématographie, a state funded body that supports French production) and France 2 (the main public service channel), as well as a number of local partners: Région Rhône Alpes and the regional authority the Department de la Drôme. In racking up all these French partners, Girerd and exec producer Patrick Eveno wanted to keep the project firmly rooted in French culture and avoid any kind of sub-contracting. Studio Canals involvement should help open the film in overseas markets.
La Prophétie was made by 140 people, all based at Folimage, which expanded its studio team for the production period, while maintaining its other productions. The film was pre-sold to around 15 territories at Cannes 2003 and it is now being released in French and Belgian cinemas, before going on to target the international market with the motto: That which retains a specific and local flavor has the potential to achieve the universal.
With its clear allusions to the problems of global warming and its cheerful animal saga, the film may well appeal to audiences who, in many countries, are looking out for non-violent childrens films that are steeped in humanistic values and is beautiful to see.
Philippe Moins is a writer and teacher in Belgium, and also the co-director of Anima 2003.