Toon of the month: Marcel, the King of Tervuren

Ruling the roost, one day at a time.

Chris Robinson
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Animation short films are like poems or songs: at their best, they can house more riches inside a small space than many feature films or records. This was what attracted me to short animation films to begin with. It’s not unusual to see, say, sprinkles of Buster KeatonSamuel Beckett and Jean-Luc Godard spread generously through a five-minute short.

Marcel, the King Of Tervuren is just such a film.

Directed by American animator Tom Schroeder (whose filmography includes the heartbreaking and hilarious Bike Race), Marcel, the King of Tervuren is a Greek tragedy told – as only animation could – with Belgian roosters.

Marcel is a cockerel who freely roams around the Belgium suburb of Tervuren waking up the neighbours each dawn with his distinctive cry of “CUCULURUCOO!” One day life takes a dramatic turn for Marcel. Suddenly everyone seems to want him dead. Marcel, though, refuses to go without a fight.

Based on a true story and narrated by Ann Merkmoes, the rooster’s gravelly-voiced owner, Marcel, the King of Tervuren is an existential tale of survival, perseverance, betrayal and mortality. Using a beautiful, energetic and freewheeling abstract paint style (notably during Marcel’s fight scenes) – along with rotoscoped sequences – Schroeder precisely captures the chaos, uncertainty and violence of Marcel’s daily existence.

Marcel might just be a cockerel, but his struggle (although extreme) is one that most of us can recognise and empathise with. No, it’s not every day that our children are trying to murder us (well, not physically) or that someone is explicitly trying to poison us, but each day, each existence has its own struggles and obstacles.

What makes us marvel at Marcel is his defiance of death and seemingly pre-determined fate. With so many forces out to destroy him, you wouldn’t blame Marcel for wiping his hands (if he had them) and saying, “Fuck it, I’m done.” But, he doesn’t and that’s something, that’s everything. It’s the classic Beckett line: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Who knows what drives Marcel? Who knows what drives any of us to go on? Maybe it’s plain foolish stubbornness: “I’ll go out when I’m goddamn ready.” Maybe it’s just for these moments when you can see and share in an experience like Marcel, the King of Tervuren and leave the cinema buzzing, exhilarated, and just glad for the encounter, however momentary.

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