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Babar: The Phantom (1990)

     by J. D. Smith

Oh, the Babar stories. How much do I love them? I know now, as an adult, that they have all those nasty undertones of French imperialism and cultural invasion, but I still love them to death. I can't help it. Cheerful elephants using their bottoms as camouflage will forever be an indelible, irresistible memory of my childhood. So I was a little concerned that I would have trouble being objective about the bow-tie-wearing pachyderm, but I gave it a good shot anyway.


The story is told in a narrative flashback style, as Babar is relating the tale of his encounter with the Phantom to his children. The set-up is, interestingly enough, very evocative of the 1937 Weibang/Sheng film from China; there is an abandoned opera house which is reputed to be haunted and is generally shunned, but ghostly, beautiful music still emanates from it now and then, much to the confusion of young Babar. The story goes about as one would expect from there - Babar, curious, penetrates the depths of the opera house and discovers a frightening figure playing at a pipe organ (and, in another touch that reminds me forcefully of the Chinese films, he wears not only a mask but also a large hood over his head).


Here the plot diverges from the original, however, and it never really returns. The Phantom turns out to be a washed-up concert pianist, one who has no apparent physical defect but who failed to pursue his vocation with enough verve and now hides, ashamed of his failure to try to perfect his art, in the opera house so that the woman he loves won't learn about his disgrace. While this doesn't follow much of Leroux's story, it is again almost dead-on for the Ye ban ge sheng franchise, whose Phantom was very much ashamed of his failure to defend his political party and lover and who would only interact with his lover through a proxy, believing it better for her to think he was dead.


It's very odd, at least to me, that this version should be drawing as strongly as it seems to be from the Ye ban ge sheng films. I'm not sure how much of a popular following Chinese cinema has in France, but I would have thought that a French version of the story (albeit one for children, using specific characters) would have stuck more closely to Leroux's original, what with that also being French. I'd love to know what the process was for coming up with this version, though I suspect that, since this is based on one of the Babar television episodes that was written by J. D. Smith (not a Frenchman - the show was produced in Canada and largely marketed in the United States), the final plot may have had little to nothing to do with Babar's French origins. Ironic that the very French elephant series ended up using the plot from the Chinese version of the classic French story.


Anyway, in the end, it turns out that the Phantom's lost love is Babar's adopted guardian, the Old Lady, and there is much tearful, geriatric pledging of affection followed by a moral that, as in the 1997 Spencer musical, exhorts the children never to shun society but to accept the help it can offer and live a happy life within its confines. Not exactly what Leroux was driving at, but Smith is obviously trying for a simplistic moral for the kiddies.


There are a few more interesting points to ponder - for example, the fact that Babar, who goes to find the Phantom and is then held hostage in the theater, is essentially fulfilling Christine's role, or that the Old Lady's presence and immediate soothing effect on everyone is the very antithesis of the lack of loving mother figures in Leroux's novel - but that's really most of it in a nutshell. It's a cute, engaging story, and I enjoyed it with mists of nostalgia in my eyes and question marks in my brain, but it doesn't really do anything particularly new or interesting, and definitely seems to have let the original themes fall by the wayside.

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