The Man Who Planted Trees

A man searches for sustainable happiness, which ends up healing an entire community.                    

TITLE The Man who Planted Trees
DIRECTOR  Frederik Back
COMPANY  CBC, NFB, Societe Radio Canada
YEAR 1987
COUNTRY Canada

REVIEW by Natalie Belton
RATING ★★★★

 

The Man who Planted Trees is one of the most influential and revered animated shorts ever created, garnering respect from both the Academy Awards and the Cannes Festival. Based upon the short story of the same name by Jean Giono, the film is about a nameless man who encounters a sheep farmer living alone in the French Alps. The nameless man acts as the film’s narrator (whose voice is provided by Philippe Noiret in the French version, and Christopher Plummer in the English version).

 

The Narrator first encounters the sheep farmer in 1913. He is hiking alone in the Alps and is enjoying himself. However, he eventually runs out of water, and finds himself in a hostile looking, treeless place. No signs of civilization remain in the area save for a few hostile locals, and old, crumbled buildings. Fortunately, The Narrator is saved by a shepherd, who leads him to a well. Curious about the quiet shepherd, the narrator spends the next day with him.

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The Narrator and The Shepherd relax after dinner.

The shepherd’s name is Elzeard Bouffier. He is 55 years old and has decided to live alone after losing his only child and wife. He hopes to find happiness in the mountains by living a simple life with his dog and sheep. Bouffier spends much of his time gathering acorns, planting 100 each day. He has been doing so for the past three years.


The Narrator does not see Bouffier again until many years later, after his harrowing experience in World War One. When he returns, he is shocked to see that the entire hillside, once barren, is now full of trees, including beeches and birches. Bouffier is now a beekeeper, as the sheep were starting to threaten his newly planted trees. Touched and inspired by what he has seen, The Narrator continues to maintain his friendship with Bouffier, until Bouffier passes away in 1947, at age 89.

 

Bouffier and his loyal dog.

The earlier portion of The Man Who Planted Trees is largely depicted with simple pencil drawings and is colored with brown and faded hues. While the rest of the film continues to be told in a minimalistic fashion and moves at a tranquil pace, it manages to hold the audience’s attention thanks to Frederik Back’s skillful art direction and the earnest way in which the story is told. (The author of the original story, in fact, often had to tell people that his short story was a work of fiction, and sometimes had a hard time convincing them that Elzeard Bouffier was not a real person.)

 

The later half of the film takes on a rather different aesthetic. As the land recovers, and people begin to move back into the area, the colored pencil drawings gradually grow brighter, emphasising the return of hope and peace in the region. The animation becomes increasingly more elaborate, at times almost resembling classic pointillism and impressionism paintings. The replanted Alps even manage to survive WWII and the area eventually becomes a protected nature preserve. The baffled naturalists and people who now live in the area consider it to have changed due to natural miracle, but Bouffier is a humble man. He does not mind that only The Narrator, himself, and a few others know of the forest’s true origin. He is happy to share his treasure with the world.

Life returns to the mountainside.


Ultimately, The Man Who Planted Trees is about learning how to recover from, and make the best of a tragic situation. Both Elzeard Bouffier and The Narrator undergo a journey of self-fulfillment and healing. They find new meaning in their lives by sharing with others, via replanting a whole mountainside and retelling an inspirational story. Towards the end of his tale, The Narrator states that, “It seemed to me that man could be as effective as God in tasks other than destruction.” He seems to have found a restored faith in humanity and realizes that the capability to do good can also encourage others.

Given time and care, even the most desolate of places can recover.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR   Natalie Belton is currently a college student majoring in Anthropology and Geography with a passionate interest in culture, film, and art. Outside of writing for CDR, she also maintain her own animation and movie blog, The Animatorium.  For any questions, Natalie may be reached at natbelton@gmail.com