A review requested by a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous, with thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

As I write these words in the spring of 2015, the 2012 French animated feature The Day of the Crows has no distribution plans in North America, nor even an announced distributor (and that despite being a Canadian co-production, and based on an award-winning book by Québécois author Jean-François Beauchemin). This is both weird and infuriating. Weird, because releasing films like this and goosing them into Oscar nominations is, like, the whole thing that GKIDS exists for. Infuriating, because The Day of the Crows presents a strong case for itself as being the best animated feature in any Western aesthetic style in the 2010s so far.

Things start out with a wonderful few minutes of distraction and sleight-of-hand, beginning with a thoroughly uncertain opening that finds a mountain of a man tearing ass through a forest at night, and dropping a baby in his hurry; that baby spends the night being kept safe by a mother animal of some kind (I'm sure they have them all over Europe, but it looks not quite exactly like any of a half-dozen cat-size mammals I can come up with), before his father comes back to retrieve him. That, then, is our first introduction to the less-than-functional relationship of Courge (voiced by Jean Reno), the father, and the boy (Lorànt Deutsch), who never does quite end up with a name. When next we see them, they're living in a hut of sticks and the walls of a shallow cave, eking out a hunter-gatherer existence and wasting no time on niceties like love or familial affection; to Courge, the boy is only an obligation that must be taught how to hunt and survive.

After a few minutes of this, two things happen in very short order that blow away what has already proven to be a visually excellent, appealingly no-frills story of life in a primeval European wood. One is that the boy crosses paths with a human body topped by a ginger cat head, wearing a heavy coat, and communicating with gestures and knowing looks. The other is that the boy, hunting a stork, comes all the way up to the edge of The Outer World, which his father has very angrily forbidden him from ever entering, and the boundary is marked by high-voltage power lines. And just like that, the film announces without even raising its voice that it's going to be much less straightforward and explicit than the opening implied.

As it turns out, Courge and the boy have been living just a few miles from a small town in the French countryside in a period that's never marked, but it's surely well after the end of World War II, to judge from the clothes and general attitudes. The boy learns this quite by accident, when his father is wounded and the silent animal-people inhabiting the wood guide him out of it; in town, he finds a kind doctor (legendary director Claude Chabrol, in the final work of his professional life; he died two years before the film opened), and his daughter Manon (Isabelle Carré), no older than the boy himself, and they take the wildmen in to heal the unconscious Courge and give the boy food and shelter. The townsfolk, meanwhile, remember Courge from the as-yet unspecified history that sent him into the woods a decade ago. and they are not happy to see him back; one old woman, Mme. Ronce (Chantal Neuwirth), is convinced that he kidnapped her niece and murdered her, and she whips up the whole town into a frenzy against the newcomers, in a fashion most reminiscent of that other small-town French drama with a corvid in its name, Henri-George Clouzot's Le corbeau.

The story, adapted by Amandine Taffin, deftly combines that kind of parable of social conflict with the essentialism of a fairy tale, and surprisingly naturalistic psychology, given the other two things. It's unexpectedly eager to plumb some dark, nasty depths of human behavior in the form of Courge, a wicked father straight out of Grimm, who does not have any of the soft edges of most kid-friendly films about poor parenting; even when we start to see the shape of his tragic backstory, it merely makes him an explicable asshole instead of an inexplicable one. The same is true of Ronce, a brittle and brutal woman whose character design makes her look like a gleefully angry skull perched upon a human body - but the character design throughout the film is divine. Let me hold off on that for just a second longer. For I was not done praising The Day of the Crows for being absolutely willing to own up to the fact that there are some bad and nasty things that happen in life, and even when they're survivable, that doesn't make them less horrible. The film gets quite a lot of mileage from something as simple as the repeated way that the boy responds with confusion and some mistrust to any attempt to show him affection or kindness - without having to spell it our or dwell on it, the animation consistently shows how the boy's upbringing has left him entirely ill-equipped for even the slightest human interaction that isn't based in control and desperation.

It is, that's as much to say, a perfect exercise in character animation as performance, despite the visual style containing not a speck of Disney-style realism (it is traditional cel-style animation, of a sort that remains common in Europe - think the beautiful Ernest & Célestine - even as it is largely extinct in North American theatrical animation). Director Jean-Christophe Dessaint - whose most important work till now has been as assistant director on The Rabbi's Cat, though I will remain breathlessly hopeful that he gets to do another feature of his own - and his team of animators and designers have made a film based clearly in the charming grotesque of European cartooning, with the characters all rounded line drawings with few details (ol' Skull-Face Ronce is the primary if not indeed only exception), whose basic "two ovals and a line" faces stuck inside squishy-shaped heads are capable of an enormous range of the subtlest emotions; Manon especially is a masterwork of communicating volumes of unspoken thoughts through the tiniest beats of "acting". Despite looking broadly simple and comic, these characters are run through an enormous range of serious emotions, and the fact that such complex loss and need play out in the caricatured cartoon shapes we see onscreen gives those feelings more impact simply as a function of how unexpected they are.

These characters are set loose in one of the most beautiful worlds in animation in a generation. To begin with, the film establishes a division between the woods and the town that serves it well: namely, the town is largely realistic, fully detailed backrounds, while the forest is laid out as a series of Impressionistic paintings. There is, for the most part, the insinuation of trees and earth rather than the clear depiction of them in crisp, steady lines; it is more a spectrum of colors melded together and treated to terrific lighting design and effects animation; the film boasts the best animated rainstorm in an age, and the whole thing is lousy with dappled lighting rolling over arms and faces.

It's as gorgeous and insinuating as animation gets, the kind of film where the raw beauty of the artwork would be worthy of acclaim even if it didn't add the layers of meaning it does to an already complex, smart story about family and social dynamics. It is, admittedly, easy for me to go nuts in extolling the merits of a film that most of my readership will probably never be able to see, but The Day of the Crows is exactly the kind of movie that drive a love of animation: the hope that one will get to see a film where everything comes together so perfectly justifies wading through a lot of halfway-decent trivialities. Not particularly insisting on a family audience nor deliberately rejecting one, and exploring a range of themes that would be impressive in any live-action film, The Day of the Crows is great moviemaking and storytelling of a sort that plainly demonstrates why the medium of animation is as artistically significant as anything else in modern cinema.