The Man Who Planted Trees (1988)

A film adaptation of Jean Giono’s 1953 book, The Man Who Planted Trees contains in its thirty minute runtime one of cinemas most beautiful and touching stories. It spans decades and traces the shifting of time and space throughout those precious minutes, giving way to something truly astounding and unexpected in the last few minutes of the film, a wondrous and inspirational vision.

The film traces the various meetings one young man (voiced by Christopher Plummer) and Elzéard Bouffier, a man who lives in the sparse wilderness, tending to his flock and planting trees acorn by acorn throughout the barren countryside. The young main returns time and time again, surprised to find the man unchanging in his mission while the countryside itself begins to take on a new form.

The lush and rich pastel animations give a vibrancy and movement to this change. The movements of shapes and morphing of nature through the animation captures an elegant movement of a breeze slowly working its way through the countryside, bringing richness and wonder to all it touches. Animators Frédéric Back and Lina Gagnon’s work is magnificent, both rich in the hues and tone of the landscape and vibrant and elegant in movement.

In supplement to the images, Christopher Plummer narrates the entire film. While one might nitpick the film for being too wordy or telling the story too easily through narration, the movement of words and the tempo gives the words a children’s storybook feel which enhances the wonder and delight of the film.

And the story itself is a rich example about how much of a difference one man can make. Here, years and years of determination and patience literally change the shape of the world, bringing about an abundance of majestic beauty through years of meticulous and careful work. By the end, the audience is admires Elzéard Bouffier and his silent kindness as much as the young man.

What makes it all the more rich and abundant are the final words of Elzéard Bouffier, his conclusion about the value of his work and what might have been. Its magnificent humility and reverence provides the most touching moment in the film.

Despite its short length, The Man Who Planted Trees fees grand and epic at times. Part of this is the scale of what happens, but the film also spans a number of decades and somehow effortlessly gives the audience that sense of a long passage of time in mere seconds. For only thirty minutes, this film covers a lot of space and time.

The amount of beauty the film is able to contain, not just in the rich animation and lush landscapes but in the content of its story and the character of its subject, is breathtaking. To consider it packages it all in the space of an episode of television makes it all the more astounding of a feat. It’s a film overflowing with wonder, a little wonder it imbues in anyone willing to embrace the film.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing