In the age of infinite Shreks and perfectionist CGI, the French animated feature Azur & Asmar feels like a throwback in more ways than one. Directed by Michel Ocelot, the animation here is often clunky and crude—not quite at South Park levels, but not too far behind, either. On the flipside, the film also contains stunning visual artistry: flowered fields, opulent tiled palaces, and fantastical creatures sing across the screen with barely a nod to realism. That's not to be taken as a criticism: The film's visual style seems an obvious artistic choice, a sign of the film's comfort, if not pride, in its place as a parable with contemporary applications.
Originally released in 2006, Azur & Asmar has been dubbed in English over the original French, although much of it remains in unadulterated Arabic, but framed in such a way that you get the gist without translation. The film focuses on two boys raised by the same woman, Jenane (Hiam Abbass), who's the natural mother of Asmar (Karim M'Riba) and the nanny of Azur (Cyril Mourali), the blond and blue-eyed son of a nobleman who employs her. When he is of age, Azur is separated from his de facto mother and brother and sent off to school, and Jenane and Asmar are kicked out. Years later, as a young man, Azur—still obsessed by a story Jenane told them as boys, of the Djinn-fairy waiting to be rescued by a prince—travels to their homeland to find them and complete the quest. (The country is never specified, but it appears to be somewhere in the Maghreb.)
Full of legends and superstitions, fairies, and other magical creatures, Azur can be bewildering at times (the ending is a muddled, muffled climax), but its richness in story and culture make it compelling to an adult audience, while the unsubtle social applications should sink effortlessly into the minds of the young.