Animation goes global at the New York International Children’s Film Festival

ScreenerBlog

This weekend’s going to be a good one for film. No, not because of the Oscars. (Though if you’re a fan of predictability and long commercial breaks, sure, this weekend will be good because of the Oscars, too.) Rather, today, February 26th, sees the kick-off of the New York International Children’s Film Festival, which runs through March 20th in several venues across the Big Apple. The country’s largest festival specifically geared towards child- and teen-oriented content, the NYICFF presents an array of shorts and features, among them animated and live-action films, documentaries and experimental offerings.

Of particular interest to me personally is NYICFF’s animated slate. This year’s program includes two offerings from GKIDS, which since its founding in 2008 has established itself as the premier distributor of international animated fare. (Two GKIDS films will be up for Oscars on Sunday: Boy and the World and When Marnie Was There, the latter a Studio Ghibli film distributed in North America through their GKIDS partnership.) April and the Extraordinary World and Phantom Boy will get wider theatrical release later this year, but NYICFF is screening both of them for those who just can’t wait.

April and the Extraordinary World is the debut feature of co-writer/directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, who take as their inspiration a graphic novel by Jacques Tardi. With April’s dystopian bent, French graphic novel origins and environmentalist concerns, it bears some surface resemblance to last year’s Snowpiercer… only without all the, you know, extreme violence and horrible stuff happening. Instead of all of humanity crammed together on a train, April gives us an alternate version of France where Napoleon III was accidentally killed by a science experiment gone wrong, as a result of which his empire never fell. In the years since Napoleon’s death, all scientists—Einstein, Curie, everyone—are rounded up for some mysterious purpose, leaving the world in an extended Age of Steam where nearly all the world’s trees have been cut down and no one’s yet managed to discover electricity. (Rather, a lot of people have discovered electricity, but they’ve all “disappeared” shortly afterwards.) The bulk of the story takes place in 1941 with budding chemistry genius April (Marion Cotillard) on the hunt for her missing family, helped along by a smooth-talking street urchin with ulterior motives (Marc-André Grondin) and a talking cat (Philippe Katerine).

It’s a great premise, and one that should appeal to any number of movie fans: those interested in alternate histories, fans of steampunk, and anyone who keeps an eye out for female-led films. (Related: Those still smarting from the lost potential of Tomorrowland, which would have been a much-needed story about a teenage girl interested in science if it had actually been good, should be particularly glad to see April come along.)

The design, in particular, is amazing: I sometimes lost track of what characters were saying, just because I was so focused on the backgrounds. What would mid-20th-century public transportation look like if electricity had never been successfully harnessed? What about phones, or cars? Adults should also be able to have some interesting philosophical discussions in the lobby about goings-on in the third act. Kids will like the chase scenes.

Phantom Boy, another GKIDS release, moves its action to modern-day New York City while still retaining a French sensibility. (The character design even has a Modigliani-esque twinge.) The “Phantom Boy” in question is Leo, a young boy stricken with a serious illness who is able to leave his body and zoom around the city streets as a sort of living ghost. Leo teams up with Alex, a policeman whose broken leg leaves him unable to investigate the whereabouts of the mysterious Man with the Broken Face, a mob boss who’s managed to take the city’s computer network hostage. This high-energy caper should appeal to fans of A Cat in Paris, as both films are directed by Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli.

We move to colder climates for Long Way North, a Denmark/France co-production about a young Russian princess determined to locate her grandfather, an explorer who went missing during his most recent expedition to the North Pole. It’s a worthy addition to the time-honored genre of films about young girls breaking free from their humdrum lives to go have adventures, even if the “adventures” in Long Way North are less fun and more life-threatening. Long Way North benefits from a charming storybook style; its director, Rémi Chayé, was the first assistant director on Tomm Moore’s Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells, and both films are visually striking. The story is slim but exciting, and the dialogue is in English, so young children should be able to enjoy it without having to contend with subtitles. There’s not as much here for adults as in April or Phantom… but, after all, this festival isn’t for adults. Younger children with an adventurous spirit—particularly young girls sick of seeing boys have all the fun on-screen—should really get a kick out of this one.

The last of the films I saw was Case of Hana and Alice, alternatively titled The Murder Case of Hana and Alice. But don’t worry, parents, there’s nothing in this one that’s particularly violent or objectionable, though Hana and Alice’s themes are geared more towards teens than young kids. The murder in question might not even be real; rather, it’s an urban legend that sprang up in a rural middle school after a student went missing. (Or was brutally killed. Or, maybe, just transferred to a new school. You know how rumors fly out of control in middle school.) New kid Alice’s ( Aoi) investigation into the missing student’s whereabouts send her into the orbit of her reclusive neighbor Hana (Anne Suzuki), which whom she forms a touching friendship. Part detective story, part comedy, this charming coming-of-age film should please devotees of Studio Ghibli.

A number of other animated films are on offer, as well, including opening night film The Boy and the Beast; Mark Osborne’s adaptation of the classic children’s novel The Little Prince; Adama, about a young boy from a West African village whose travels inadvertently land him in the middle of World War I’s Battle of Verdun; the Scandinavian folklore-inspired Beyond Beyond; a newly restored version of Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant, and more. For information on all of NYICFF’s films, animation and live action alike, visit the festival’s website