Two sisters find a portal to a surreal fantasy world in this distinctive, yet clearly Miyazaki-inspired Annecy opener

Sirocco and the Kingdom Of The Winds

Source: Annecy Film Festival

‘Sirocco and the Kingdom Of The Winds’

Dir: Benoît Chieux. France, Belgium. 2023. 80mins

Two young sisters find a portal to the world inside their favourite fantasy book series in the second feature-length animation from Benoît Chieux (he co-directed Aunt Hilda! with Jacques-Remy Girerd) which has opened this year’s Annecy Film Festival. Sirocco And The Kingdom Of The Air Streams is a beguiling and surreal story of sisterhood and survival as the girls contend with a surreal, gravity-defying realm in which levitating dinosaur crocodiles are used as a means of transport and a sorcerer named Sirocco (Pierre Lognay) has weaponised the weather, sending destructive hurricanes to batter the teetering shack-tower villages. Not to mention the fact that, somewhere in the journey between their world and this one, five-year-old Juliette (Loïse Charpentier) and her older sister Carmen (Maryne Bertieaux) have transformed into cats.

A beguiling and surreal story of sisterhood and survival

This is a distinctive and original piece of world-building that, at the same time, pays homage to legendary figures in animation – mainly Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki is the first name listed in Chieux’s list of thanks in the closing credits, and his influence is evident throughout the film. Juliette, for example, is a spiritual doppelganger of My Neighbour Totoro’s Mei – both are wilful, curious and completely unfazed when confronted by monsters in a magical world. There’s also a kinship in the character design, with Juliette sharing Mei’s stumpy-legged five-year-old’s swagger. Elsewhere, the film echoes Miyazaki’s preoccupation with the skies – the flying opera house where the girls meet the legendary singer Selma (Aurélie Konaté) is a ‘moving castle’ of culture – and with sisterly bonds.

While you could argue that the film walks close to the line between homage and plagiarism, most animation fans will appreciate the film for what it is: a loving tribute to one of the all-time greats of the medium. The film will be released in France at the end of 2023 and could find theatrical interest elsewhere; younger audiences, oblivious to the Ghibli references,  will be charmed by the film’s invention and moments of inspired silliness.

That silliness comes courtesy of a curious little toy (Laurent Morteau) that is instrumental in transporting the girls to the Kingdom Of The Air Streams, but which gets damaged in an accident. The girls reassemble him but find that he can subsequently only speak gibberish (“Grapes!”, he shouts triumphantly. “Under the armpits!”) and that he no longer has the power to send the girls back to their own world.

Fortunately, Juliette meets the legendary chanteuse Selma, a fabulous bird-diva who takes pity on the small, fractious cat-girl and offers to help her. Her first mission is to swoop down on her customised paraglider to rescue Carmen, who is about to be forced into marriage to the craven, repulsively pustule-covered son of the local mayor (himself a dead ringer for the humanoid frog bathhouse lackey in Spirited Away). Selma, it turns out, has a connection with the world to which girls are trying to return. She is the sister of Agnes (Géraldine Asselin), the best friend of the girls’ mother and  author of the storybooks about The Kingdom Of The Air Streams.

And it’s in the character of Selma – the beauty of her voice and of her empathy – that the film finds its soul. The score, by Pablo Pico is gorgeous throughout, lush, sweeping and richly orchestrated. But when Selma sings – French-Cameroonian jazz vocalist Célia Kameni provides her voice – it is spine-tingling. A velvety purr that gradually builds, soaring and pure, it’s a voice that legitimately could have come from another world.

Production company: Sacrebleu Productions, Take Five, Ciel De Paris

International sales: Kinology

Producers: Ron Dyens, Gregory Zalcman, Cilvy Aupin

Screenplay: Benoît Chieux, Alain Gagnol

Artistic direction: Benoît Chieux

Music: Pablo Pico

Main voice cast: Loïse Charpentier, Maryne Bertieaux, Aurélie Konaté. Pierre Lognay, Laurent Morteau, Eric de Staercke, David Dos Santos, Géraldine Asselin, Célia Kameni