We've become so used to hyper-realistic computer animation -- with its fathomless depths and perfect shimmering surfaces bouncing light just so -- that any return to "flat" animation is startling. Who lights a candle when we've got the electric light bulb?! But after a few moments, you realize that although a candle casts light differently, it still illuminates, and indeed, offers its own charms.
So it is with Michel Ocelot's animated fable, which offers primarily two-dimensional images, with some aspects including faces and wondrous objects presented with more depth. After re-adjusting to the flatness and the rather slow start, the viewer can appreciate the richness of the colors, the intricate background drawings and some singularly gorgeous tableaux.
Ocelot, who made 1998's Kirikou and the Sorceress, tells an original fairy tale inspired by folklore. Long ago, two boys -- Asur, the blond, blue-eyed European, and the darker, Arab child named Asmar -- are raised as friends; Asmar's mother is Asur's nanny. Their paths diverge, when Asmar and his mother return to their faraway land.
The adult Azur, intrigued by wondrous tales of trapped fairies told by his nanny, sets out for this mysterious land. There he re-encounters his childhood pal, and the two embark on a quest to find the mythical fairy, gaining new insight, overcoming hurdles and dodging danger along the way.
Explicit in the narrative is much commentary about racial prejudice, as each young man takes a turn at being the despised "other," and the importance of cooperation. Adults may find such bromides overly simplistic, but this is a tale spun for children, though gilded with enough rich, exotic images to keep the (presumably) already enlightened adults marveling. Starts Fri., Feb. 6. Regent Square (AH) [3 out of 4 stars]