Kirikou, the hero of this fanciful story, is first heard from while still in the womb. He demands to be born. His startled mother replies that Kirikou sounds smart enough to deliver himself into the world. Which he proceeds to do-emerging as a fully functioning mite of a thing, with an incredible vocabulary, an intuitive grasp of right and wrong, and the fastest legs ever seen.

When this precocious infant learns that an evil sorceress has cast a terrible spell on his village-drying up its only water supply, among other things-Kirikou decides to put an end to the terrible punishments that have been inflicted upon his people. Thus he sets out, so tiny he can hide under a hat worn by his uncle (the only man in the village not eaten alive by the sorceress), to encounter the evil Karaba herself. No easy task, for the tall, beautiful witch lives in an enormous round house, and is protected night and day by an army of magical 'fetishes' who see all, hear all, and do her bidding without question or qualm.

Just as there's no light-to-dark shading in the bright, equatorial colors the animators used to depict the African landscape in this delightful movie, there's no shading in the life lessons Kirikou and the Sorceress imparts. Before Kirikou can save the day, at last showing himself to be the princely man he was born to be, he must first find out why the sorceress is so evil. Or, as he puts it: 'Why are there people who do you harm even when you do them no harm?' The answer Kirikou finds is surprising and, as in all worthwhile myths, it is also very gratifying.

Despite some initial concern over the 'nudity' in this colorfully animated feature (little Kirikou is naked throughout, and all adult women are unclothed from the waist up), this has not been a problem for the children and adult viewers who've made Kirikou a box-office hit in Europe. And it shouldn't be a problem in the U.S., for, in addition to being an uplifting morality tale suitable for all ages, this refreshingly different work by filmmaker Michel Ocelot is an aural as well as a visual delight. The imaginative, bold-stroke animation evokes the best of African folk art, and the extraordinary score, combining vocal and instrumental music composed by Senegal's Youssou N'Dour, evokes the best of Africa's indigenous music. Lacking the promotional machine of The Lion King, this much smaller and simpler film-which is about people, not anthropomorphized animals-could nevertheless take its place as an animation classic.

--Shirley Sealy