"Azur & Asmar" reps family entertainment so gloriously bright, auds with sensitive eyes may need shades. Gallic writer-helmer-animator Michel Ocelot abandons here the hand-drawn technique and the sub-Saharan setting he explored in his "Kirikou" franchise to go digital and further North up the continent with an original fairy tale about two young men -- one French, one Arab -- on a quest to find an enchanted bride. Francophone and Arabic-speaking tots should dig this first and foremost, but with careful marketing and perhaps dubbing, entrancing pic could crossover to offshore viewers of all ages, especially those who liked, say, "Spirited Away."
Opening reels sketch infancy to teenage years in vaguely 18th-century France of Caucasian Azur (voiced first by Rayan Mahjoub, then by Cyril Mourali when Azur comes of age) and Arab Asmar (Abdelsselem Ben Amar, then Karim M'Ribah). Asmar's Magreb mother Jenane (Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, "Paradise Now") is the motherless Azur's nurse.
The two kids grow up like brothers, always bickering over who had the bigger slice of pie, but equally entranced by Jenane's bedtime stories about the Fairy Djinn, a magical princess protected by beasties and perils.
Azur returns as a young man from his city education to find Jenane and Asmar have been sent away, and vows to go in search of the Fairy Djinn. A shipwreck washes him ashore in North Africa, and after various mishaps he's reunited with Jenane and Asmar. However, Asmar is also set on finding the Fairy Djinn, and the two become rivals.
Jenane, a brainiac 9-year-old princess (Fatma Ben Khell) and a Jewish wise man equally portion out advice and handy gadgets before they set out their final-act quest, with Azur accompanied by kvetching Frenchman Crapoux (Patrick Timsit) along for comic relief.
Despite once-upon-a-time setting, a modern, liberal sensibility informs story's plea for racial and religious tolerance, respect for women, and the virtues of cooperation and good manners.
Structurally, script by Ocelot follows in footsteps of classic folk tales such as those found in "Arabian Nights" or the Brothers Grimm compendia, but doesn't stick rigidly to the Screenwriting 101 patterns that tend to straightjacket too many kidpics these days.
This does mean young viewers reared on Hollywood fare may feel the pace dawdles before getting to the exciting stuff. But animation by Ocelot and his numerous assisting animators from all over the world is so magnificent, viewers with longer attention spans will be kept highly amused.
Departing from the more traditionally 'toon-like figures in the "Kirikou" movies, graphic style here eschews definition lines altogether on the characters and limits shading so that figures' clothes appear as scaldingly bright fields of solid color in motion.
Production design, credited to Anne-Lise Lourdelet-Koehler, goes nuts with the intricately patterned, arabesque architecture and highly stylized and detailed landscapes to craft a world like a lavishly printed children's book brought to life. One shot of a woman's nipple may upset censors in more prudish territories, but pic has far less nudity than the "Kirikou" franchise.
Music, Gabriel Yared; production designer, Anne-Lise Lourdelet-Koehler; sound (Dolby Digital/ DTS), Thomas Desjonqueres, Cyril Holtz. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight), May 22, 2006. Running time: 98 MIN.