A review requested by Allison Tooey, with thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The thing we should first know about the 2011 animated feature film Tales of the Night is that it's not really a feature film. Or from 2011. Instead, it's a package film made up of six episodes from the 2010 series Dragons and Princesses, and now that I've explained that, I hope you'll excuse me for backing up so I can explain the history of the thing, because it has quite a few moving parts.

Our story begins in the head of Michel Ocelot, and if you care much at all about animation, I hope you already know his name. If you don't, know that he's been active since the '70s, bursting into the thing that passes for prominence among the directors of animated short films with his 1979 film The Three Inventors, which won a clutch of international awards. He kept busy throughout the '80s, but we're first going to stop in 1989, when he oversaw the creation of an eight-episode television series called Ciné si ("Cinema if", but it's more poetic in French), his first experiment in silhouette animation, in which a handful of repeating characters conjured up fantasy and sci-fi stories to act out. Critics and animators loved the show, but audiences didn't, and eight episodes was all it got. Three years later, Ocelot crafted three further stories into a half-hour TV special, Tales of the Night - not our current subject! - and that would have been that.

But then, in 1998, Ocelot directed his first feature, Kirikou and the Sorceress, and became an overnight sensation, insofar as the French director of boutique animated fables could possibly become such a thing. Audiences - some audiences, at least - clamored for another Ocelot feature, and one was created in the most pragmatic way possible: six episodes of Ciné si were slightly edited and assembled into Princes and Princesses, which was released theatrically in 2000.

I bring this up because Tales of the Night is nothing so much as Princes and Princesses, Mark 2, much as Dragons and Princesses was basically a second, more financially successful version of Ciné si. Or maybe we could think of it as Ciné si was it was always meant to be and never was. The new series was made digitally, and despite what you'd think to look at it, it was made in three-dimensional space, so that when the silhouetted figures move, they move with volume and depth. It's really quite an astounding thing, more astounding than I can say, to see a pure black shape with just a bit of jewelry and some white eyes to give it more context than a simple profile suddenly turn, and be able to perceive the shape of it as it turns. Silhouette animation is nearly as old as the motion picture itself - the oldest extant animated feature, Lotte Reiniger's 1926 The Adventures of Prince Achmed, is silhouette animation - and to think that in the 21st Century, somebody could still come up with a way to freshen it up and do something new with the medium, that is all the testament to Ocelot's creative importance that I need.

So anyway, that is what Tales of the Night is: five of the ten episodes of Dragon and Princesses combined into an anthology film, with the same "animated characters play-act the stories they tell" format of Ciné si, hell, with the same urban skyline title cards as Ciné si. The sixth and final segment of Tales of the Night is the value-added part, a newly-animated story just for the feature, though tonally and aesthetically it's indistinguishable from the other five.

Here, is my slightly uncharitable thought about all of this: I wish it had remained ten episodes. "Uncharitable" because if Tales of the Night hadn't been cobbled together this way, it's hard to imagine that I'd have gotten to see any of it, so I should be grateful that it was bundled in this form and grateful again that GKIDS (those heroes to all animation lovers of the United States) distributed it. Still, the thing is... it's a television series, right, and a television series with a distinct sameness to the look, tenor, and content of each episode. A television series that I would probably not be inclined to binge-watch, in other words, no matter how good the episodes all look.

And boy oh boy oh boy, they do look amazing. The basic stylistic template for all of them is straightforward enough: those silhouetted characters, with no more facial features than their almond-shaped eyes, in front of simply glorious backgrounds digitally painted in glowing, gem-like hues (the film was released theatrically in 3-D; I greatly wish I'd have seen it that way, I suspect that would give the whole thing the feel of a diorama made out of stained glass). It's beautiful enough to make your eyes water, and the computer-animated silhouettes move with a fluidity and smoothness that's all the more striking for contrasting so much with the old-fashioned appearance of the silhouettes themselves. I would slightly fault Ocelot's 2006 film Azur & Asmar for being smooth enough to look synthetic; Tales of the Night abstracts its figures just enough to avoid that fate for itself.

The style, combined with the framework narrative (a boy and girl in an old movie theater discuss with the ancient projectionist what story they want to play, what time period they want to set it, and which characters they'll inhabit), and with the sketchy lack of details in the narrative, encourages us to think of this as a folktale collection, which is of course basically what it is; I'm unfamiliar with the source material for any of the six segments, if indeed there is any source material (the only writing credit is for Ocelot), but all of them feel like authentic fairy tales, the kind that could show up at any point in history or geography (which is, after all, the point of the framework narrative). And taken individually, they all serve as the right kind of dreamy bedtime story, tinged with a little bit of spookiness or of magic.

Not all of them are equal, either as stories or as exercises in animated creativity. On the latter count, the best is easily the third segment, "The Chosen One and the City of Gold", in which an Aztec maiden is set to be sacrificed to a snake god, with a hero from a foreign land arriving to throw things into disarray; the rhythmic motion of the Aztec citizens, the bright yellows of the backgrounds, and especially the thick, undulating snake god itself, all stand out as particular marvels. I also greatly admired the musical pacing of the fourth segment, "The Boy Tam-Tam", about an African youth who plays a magical drum that causes armies to dance in place; the dancing soldiers are both funny and greatly hypnotic in their graceful uniform motion.

As far as the actual stories go, I certainly preferred the first two, the Grimm-style werewolf love story "The Werewolf", with its basic, dynamic characters, and the "be kind to giant killer animals" tale "Tijean and Belle-Sans-Connaitre", with its elegant mythic structured based on repeating sets of three. And there we note the problem inherent to the anthology form: not all stories are created equal, and an anthology film can live or die based on where it puts the best ones. Tales of the Night doesn't have too much too worry about there: it has no actively bad stories, and only the fifth, "The Boy Who Never Lied", about a venal princess and a talking horse, strikes me as being distinctly weaker than the others. Still, the general arc of the movie is to get weaker as it goes along (take out "The Boy Who Never Lied" and I'd rank the stories in exactly the order they come along from best to worst - as examples of animation, it's more scattered), which makes it hard to shake the feeling that even just 84 minutes of Tales of the Night is more than we want in one go.

By all means, I think the film is a marvel, and everybody with any affection for animation is duty-bound to see it: outside of Tomm Moore's tributes to Celtic artwork, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, I can't think of anything in recent memory that does such a good job of incorporating folk-art aesthetics into the design of its animated world. I offer but two caveats: first is track down a physical media copy, because the English dub you can find on streaming sites is awful, and inaccurate (among other things, it adds spurious narration). Second, don't watch it all at once. Yeah, it's short, but taking time off in between segments can only help; there's a bright magic to the content here, and the rich "fill it in with your own imagination" quality characteristic of great fairy tales, and the simple fact is that the format Tales of the Night presents the stories in almost can't help but overwhelm some of that magic, and we absolutely don't want that.