Graphic arts grad students and young fans of multi-culti fairy tales are the most likely audiences for “Tales of the Night,” the new — and somewhat disappointing — animated wonder from French visionary Michel Ocelot. Ocelot was last seen in these parts with 2006’s “Azur & Asmar,” a story of young princely frenemies that had the stately dazzle of an illuminated manuscript. “Tales,” which (as the title suggests) is an “Arabian Nights”-style omnibus, has similarly eye-bending backgrounds but a creatively monochromatic foreground that comes to feel like a limitation.
In an abandoned cinema in an unnamed city, a teenage boy and girl join with an aging narrator to write and direct original stories set in different countries and historical eras. There’s a touch of the old “Mr. Peabody” cartoons to the setup, with a magic costume gizmo that zaps the two kids with appropriate clothes and hairstyles before sending them back in the Wayback Machine of their imaginations.
The tales unfold in medieval Europe, the Caribbean islands, the Aztec Empire, Africa, and Tibet, and while the narratives are original in detail they draw from classic folklore’s resonant storehouse of characters and plot lines. Here be dragons and princesses (both conniving and constant), resourceful young adventurers and changeling maidens, ogres and magic men.
Here, too, are painterly settings that bloom with incandescent colors and patterns that are almost fractal in their accumulated detail. Art and design aficionados will be beside themselves as they sort out Ocelot’s influences; the Tibetan landscapes inspired by the work of the early-20th-century Russian painter Nicholas Roerich are a particular joy.
Tales of the Night
But Ocelot’s decision to draw all the characters in the tradition of Indonesian shadow puppetry — cut-out silhouettes whose only visible details are the whites of their eyes — is an artistic gamble that doesn’t fully pay off. The background colors and designs are so intense, even hyperreal, that you may find yourself drawn to the settings more than the action. The repetitive nature of the stories adds to the general air of brilliant monotony. “Tales of the Night” was shot in 3-D and it’s very possible that the film’s visual layers pop into greater dramatic relief when seen in that format; the Museum of Fine Arts, unfortunately, will be showing a flat print.
The MFA will also be alternating dubbed and subtitled versions; check the website if you don’t want to end up reading aloud to your kids. You should take them anyway, especially if they have a taste for the unusual in their picture books and fairy tales. As with “Azur & Asmar,” images from “Tales of the Night” are suitable for framing. It’s just that the new film doesn’t quite make it out of the museum.