Migration — Babar

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

I had a pleasant surprise last night as I discovered that Babar the Elephant is having an exhibit. For those of you who had deprived childhoods, Babar was a little orphan elephant. A hunter shot his mother, but Babar escaped, and a sweet elderly lady took him in and raised him as a human, complete with education and clothing. Eventually Babar returned to his home in the jungle and became king. Jean De Brunhoff and later his son, Laurent, created the marvelous stories (more than 50 books in all) with super illustrations of King Babar, who wears a crown, a three-piece suit, and spats when he’s not in royal robes. His queen, Celeste, their children and an assortment of other folk round out the residents of Celesteville, among them Zephir the monkey. Babar traveled the world in print – he even came to the United States and went to the moon at about the same time Neil Armstrong did. Babar also had his own animated movie: The Story of Babar the Little Elephant, which was first shown in1968. The elephant king apparently fell out of favor because he reflected the racist views of French colonialism. The message couldn’t have been too strong, though, as my parents kept supplying me with the books until I graduated to more adult fare.

Babar returned to my awareness when I saw ad for “Drawing Babar: Early Drafts and Watercolors,” which is opening September 19 at The Morgan Library & Museum. I most definitely plan to attend. The preview shows a much more delicate line than the final versions that appeared in the books and it’s always helpful to see works in progress.

It occurred to me as I was looking at the Babar illustrations that “The Simpsons” owe much to Babar, Celeste, and company. Celeste’s hair isn’t blue, but one of the children is always clinging to her, just like little Maggie sticks by Marge. Cornelius and Pompadour, the king’s advisors, serve as the voice of sometimes overbearing morality, just like Ned Flanders. And Cousin Arthur is definitely Bart with a bit more control. (Can you say “Eat my shorts!” in French?)

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