Dilili in Paris is an uneven but beautiful tribute to Belle Époque France, and smartly makes a woman of color the star of a film set in period usually portrayed as white and male.
The latest work from legendary French animator Michel Ocelot, Dilili in Paris is an acquired taste. It’s not a Pixaresque whirlwind of visual delight and storytelling greatness. It doesn’t have the wild ingenuity of a Studio Ghibli film. And it doesn’t have the musicality or painstaking attention to detail of an animated Disney staple. However, what it does aspire to do, it does well: Ocelot has created a love letter to Paris, particularly in the Belle Époque of the late 19th to early 20th century.
So enamored with Ocelot with the Paris of this time period that his film is told in a strange style that involves animated characters traversing photorealistic backgrounds. The notion here is that Paris is so perfect that an animated imagining of it couldn’t compete (Ratatouille proves otherwise, but the philosophy is noble). He takes this attention to historical detail so seriously that not only is the city presented as it was, but the characters are as well: a bevy of real-life historical figures make cameos or even figure more prominently into Dilili’s adventurous if thin plot.
The character Dilili is originally from the South Pacific (specifically New Caledonia). Both Ocelot’s previous work and his stated ambitions reveal his interest in creating inclusive narratives, and his decision to feature a nonwhite character in an era most often portrayed as very white (see Midnight in Paris, for example) is bold and presented in a manner that is sensitive (mostly), historically accurate and educational. For example, Dilili starts out in a “human zoo,” which is jarring but also something that occurred in this era. This, as well as the film’s welcome feminist agenda, are perhaps inelegantly approached at times, but the positives of including these often-erased voices outweigh the negatives.
The plot follows Dilili and her friend Orel (a geographically savvy delivery boy) as they set out to solve the mystery behind a series of missing girls in Paris. Their endeavor brings them into contact with many of the aforementioned historical figures and also gives them an excuse to explore as much of the city as one can in a 95-minute film.
Such scenes are the highlight of the film, and it is hard not to wish that Ocelot had simply decided to take us on a silent tour of Belle Époque Paris, so exquisite are his background images. The up-and-down plot is occasionally interesting, but is mostly carried by the delightful Dilili, who frankly deserved a better script for her film debut.
The figure animation is jarring, appearing as if models were plucked from a late ‘90s point-and-click computer game, but this quality brings attention to both the characters and the backgrounds, and makes it easy to follow the action while still being swept up in the scenery. And it’s also exciting to see such an experienced filmmaker continue to take risks. Anyone familiar with Ocelot’s oeuvre will know that he doesn’t have a distinct style; he is an experimenter and an innovator, and Dilili in Paris is no different. And though the character animation is stiff to the extreme, Paris is meant to be the star here, and it is, though the art and architecture of the era are also given quite a bit of attention.
Dilili in Paris is an uneven but beautiful tribute to Belle Époque France, and smartly makes a woman of color the star of a film set in period usually portrayed as white and male. It also, in writer and director Ocelot, gives us a chance to applaud one of animated film’s most engaged and active cinematic citizens.