The Fourth King is a fresh take on the old legend about a royal astrologer who also sees the star of Bethlehem and sets out to pay homage to the newborn king, but is repeatedly delayed en route. The story has been filmed at least twice before. 30 years ago Romano Scarpa directed another animated version of the story, and 1997 saw the release of the live-action Il Quarto Re featuring Billy Dee Williams as Gaspar.In this version of the tale, King Mazzel rules a kingdom so small that it really only consists of him and his royal camel, Chamberlain. When the star appears they set off for their pre-arranged rendezvous with the other three kings. On their way, however, they encounter various people in need of their help - a stranded little girl, a lost tribe, a dying plant and some enslaved children. But each time they help those in need they fall further behind the other kings and it becomes even more unlikely that they will fulfil their quest.
Fourth King is the work of Alexandra Schatz Filmproduktion, Kickback Media and Slugger Film AB making it a cross-European project (one site lists it as a English / German / French / Swedish / Swiss-German collaboration!). Directed by Ted Sieger and Michael Ekbladh from John Chambers' script, it's told entirely by narration (the UK version features Kevin Whatley).One of the film's biggest strengths is the quality of the animation. The figures are quirky and charming, and the world they populate is both stylish and distinctive. The animators know when to bend the rules to give the story a touch of magic. At the same time there's a simplicity to everything that befits the humility which lies at the core of the film's message. Equally impressive is Martin Brandqvist's subtle yet crucial score.
The UK version also owes a debt to Kevin Whatley's relaxed narration. The story is told through the eyes of Chamberlain the camel, and Whatley does well bringing out the gentle humour whilst conveying a sense of significance at the same time. It's unclear whether puns such as the one about "oasis jokes" translate for all language versions of the film, but they are certainly an added bonus for English-speaking audiences.Without wishing to spoil the film's ending, it's fair to say that it provides a fitting climax to all that has gone before suggesting that whilst Mazzel and Chamberlain's path may not have given them the fame of the other kings, they did choose correctly. As such this heart-warming little film is likely to remain a Christmas family favourite for many in the years to come.