`Kirikou' is an animated adventure in Africa

Movie review

XXX "Kirikou and the Sorceress," animated film with the voices of Theo Sebeko, Antoinette Kellermann, Mabuto Sithole, Kombisile Sangweni. Written and directed by Michel Ocelet. 74 minutes. Varsity, today through Thursday. No rating; includes cartoon nudity.

This cheerfully inventive feature-length cartoon, produced in Belgium and France but presented here in an English-language version, is based on an African folk tale about a precocious baby who challenges a vicious sorceress.

The more frightened people are, the more power the wicked Karaba (voice by Antoinette Kellermann) assumes she has.

The monstrous creature lays waste to the boy's village, devours the men who oppose her, ransoms the surviving villagers and shows off the jewelry she steals from them.

But Kirikou (Theo Sebeko), a fearless newborn child, isn't impressed by her demonstration of dominance.

Nor is he frightened of her obedient accomplices, who spend their time burning huts and draining the local water supply.

"Why are you mean and evil?" Kirikou asks. The child, who demanded to be born and started speaking before he emerged from his mother's womb, simply won't accept the status quo.

Fast on his feet, quick with his tongue, he's a formidable force - even if he is the tiniest baby the village has seen. His very existence all but demands a showdown with the tyrant.

In the process, he also has a number of adventures with the local nonhumans, comparing his diminutive stature to squirrels and snakes and wart hogs.

One of the movie's chief charms is Senegalese musician Youssou N'Dour's lyrical score, which almost suggests an anti-"Lion King" approach. The music isn't in a hurry to dramatize its story or make epic statements.

The same might be said of writer-director Michel Ocelot's delicate animation style and his handling of small moments. He even has room for a scene of Kirikou's mother (Kombisile Sangweni) gathering herbs to make soup.

"I used the African tale as a starting point to develop a simple, fundamental story with the questions I asked as a child and the convictions I assume as an adult," says Ocelot. "Kirikou will reach the truth, his actions will be his own, he will not simply kill Karaba as in the original story."

Note: The natives' nudity is handled quite straightforwardly by the animators. While it can be a shock for a child raised on Disney to find such anatomically correct creatures in a cartoon, the movie doesn't draw attention to it. The lack of clothes is simply part of the landscape; after a while, anything less would seem a violation.

First shown here as part of the Seattle International Film Festival's Saturday-matinee series, "Kirikou and the Sorceress" is back today for a regular run at the Varsity. It is playing early shows only, while the adult Jamaican thriller, "Third World Cop," is screened at 9 p.m. daily. They are not a double bill; separate admission is required.