Directors – Serge Elissalde & Gregoire Solotareff, Screenplay – Gregoire Solotareff, Producers – Christophe Jankovic & Valerie Schermann, Music – Sanseverino, Animation – Borisfen Lutece, Delanim & Prima Linea Productions, Production Design – Genevieve Gratien. Production Company – Prima Linea Productions/Geetek/France 3/Celluloid Dreams.)
The young canine princess Mona feels lonely living in the castle by the seashore that is her home. The young female unicorn U appears and she and Mona become inseparable friends. However, Mona’s grandmother, the rat Goomi, disapproves of U. Mona begins to grow up. In the woods, U befriends the lizard Lazare and then the travelling musicians known as The Yeah-Yeahs. As Goomi plots to drive The Yeah-Yeahs out of the woods, Mona begins a tentative romance with one of the group, the young cat musician Kulka.
U is a French-made animation project that was a collaboration between director Serge Elissalde, who had only previously made a handful of animated shorts, and the expatriate Lebanese-Russian children’s author Gregoire Solotareff who has previously written 121 children’s books, several of which had been adapted for film (alas not known outside of France). U was Gregoire Solotareff’s debut as a director.
U has been made with some extrmely low-key animation. This is something that makes it a fresh delight in comparison to the packaged formula of the animation emerging from the US mainstream nowadays. The characters are drawn with a simplicity – not even so much line-drawn as hand-sketched much of the time. The backgrounds are often watercolours with detail that is vague at best. Despite this, the film arrays a very pretty range of colours. There are times where this mounts to something quite lovely – especially the bonfire scene where the animation turns abstract and characters dance in outline against the flames, where others take to the air and in the most amusing moment the cat has its whiskers stretched to become musical strings and even a clothesline.
The film never concerns itself too much with a plot. It exists as more of an amiable picaresque where everything happens in a very loose way. That said, all of it comes together quite engagingly. The characters have a free and easy breeziness – there is never the feeling, as you get in American mainstream animation, that they are written to formula and have cut-out arcs like The Comic Sidekick, The Heroic Underdog etc etc. The film has a naturalistic humour and charm. Especially appealing are the petulant heroine’s tentative romantic scenes and the debate that she has with her feline paramour over how to kiss properly.
You could try and imagine how U might have emerged as a formula American mainstream animated film. The heroine would have a far more dramatic struggle to escape from her grandmother, who would much more obviously evil and scheming; the unicorn would become more of a sagacious dispenser of life lessons; the Yeah-Yeahs would have been turned into standard talking animal sidekicks; there would be a good deal of joking and reference to contemporary pop culture; the unicorn’s departure at the end would have been blown up into something tragic; and the animators would be trying to impress you with their technology and art the whole way through. U has none of that. It is rough around the edges sometimes but that is part of its appealing amiability.