Feminist mystery “Dilili in Paris,” a new feature-length enterprise from French animation legend Michel Ocelot (“Kirikou and the Sorceress,” “Azur & Asmar”) spotlights the prominence of noxious ideologies, misogyny and racism through an occasionally dazzling, though oddly rendered, adventure set during the Belle Epoque period of the late 1800s and early 1900s in Paris.
Dilili (voiced by Angelina Carballo in the English dub), a young biracial and bilingual Kanak immigrant from New Caledonia, a French colony in the South Pacific, snuck into a ship to reach Europe, where she now performs her tribe’s daily tasks as exotic amusement for Parisians. Speaking openly about the racially motivated discrimination she’s endured, Dilili shines as a rare heroine of color in a white world. She feels neither fully French nor Kanak, because she is either two fair or too dark depending on where she finds herself geographically.
Intrigued by her linguistic abilities, Orel (Jason Kesser), a local courier, befriends the petite erudite and fills her in on the recent abductions of multiple girls at the hands of a sexist sect known as the Male Masters. Its sleazy members wear nose rings and despise women who’ve attained any sort of power within French society. Naturally, the curious and socially conscious Dilili wishes to investigate in order to unclog the ideological sewer that has enabled these culprits.
Didactic in its tonal approach and narrative construction, Ocelot’s latest gives the impression of being an introductory installment in a property that could yield its own television series aimed at young audiences looking for an entertaining way to learn about France’s historical figures. Elegantly greeting anyone with whom she comes in contact, Dilili becomes acquainted with the likes of Marie Curie, Marcel Proust, Claude Debussy, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and even Gustave Eiffel. While charming and trivia-friendly, the encounters add up as if fulfilling a checklist on a lesson plan more than organically strengthening the tale.
Photorealistic backgrounds consistently stun as they clash with the more low-res CG characters, which emulate designs from early 21st century video games rather than fully accomplished animated characters for a production made this decade. Instead of being translated into more graphic or cartoonish incarnations, landmarks, buildings, and other architectural gems retain their real-life textures and lighting, as do all other elements of the production design. At first sight, their live-action look bewilders the eyes.
Stylistically, the visual divide between the human figures and their environments makes for a striking contrast. However, once movement comes into play, the precarious confection of the characters is unavoidably noticeable. Instances that surpass these ill-conceived characteristics exist, such as a blue-hued segment featuring singer Emma Calvé (Paula Barros) performing on a swan boat while inside a palatial structure built on water, or when Paris’ most iconic tower takes the foreground for a climactic action sequence.
As Dilili and the supporters she’s accumulated along her Jules Verne-inspired ordeal inch closer to resolving the mystery of the missing girls, darkness creeps into the plot once it’s revealed that the wicked group they are fighting resembles terrorist organizations like ISIS or the Taliban in the dehumanizing tactics they employ to subdue captured adult women and girls. It’s in the implementation of this twist that the French pedigree of the film becomes obvious, since animated projects there (even those considered children-oriented) dare to touch on adult subjects. American viewers may raise their eyebrows to the revelation of what the kidnappers refer to as a “four-leg” creature and to the truly disturbing, although unfortunately realistic, conversations men have about women throughout.
Patriarchal subjugation is also addressed in moments involving artists and scientists vowing never to sign their work in their husbands’ names or to allow them to take credit for their discoveries. Dilili herself isn’t shy about her affinity to write or the multiple interests that could result in a career when she grows older. Ocelot’s attempt to rewrite history as her story in this period fiction, as instructional as it is, demonstrates he has his finger on both the pulse of modern culture and the historically unresolved wrongs perpetrated by the white male establishment.
Overly explanatory dialogue at every step of the way doesn’t help “Dilili in Paris” surpass its information-dispatching structure nor does it complement it with more necessary pathos. Stilted but commendable for its intent, the movie may function as a great conversation-starter if watched with young kids who might be receptive to new material. For fans of international animation, there are sporadic diamonds of craft, but likely not enough to impress viewers accustomed to the quality of the GKIDS catalogue.
Ocelot works independently, and in today’s rapidly changing and saturated animation landscape. that could mean less resources for ventures like this. Still, finding a space within the educational market as an art-house audiovisual tool for elementary history classes could very possibly be “Dilili’s” ultimate destiny, and that’s truly where it’s most needed.