Visit the world of animation at the New York International Children's Film Festival


From February 23 to March 18, the wide world of youth cinema descends on New York City courtesy of the New York International Children’s Film Festival. Now entering its 21st year, the fest—as always—enjoys a robust blend of features, shorts, live action and animation. A VR JR. event and companion talk make their way onto the program this year as well, introducing a new generation of moviegoers to a new generation of high-tech storytelling.

The festival opens on Friday, February 23 with the East Coast premiere of Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall, one of three Yuasa films that distributor GKids will release in theatres this year. (The other two, Night is Short, Walk on Girl and 2004 cult classic Mind Game, aren’t so much children’s film festival material.) A high-energy crowd pleaser bolstered by welcome shots of kooky surrealism—wait until the titular character’s father shows up—Lu Over the Wall is set in a small Japanese fishing town that, local legend has it, historically has something of a mermaid problem. Moody teen Kai meets one of the mythical creatures, who’s less the flesh-hungry demon he’s been told about than a peppy young girl who loves music and dancing and just wants to be friends with everyone.

NYICFF recommends Lu Over the Wall for audiences of eight and up. Parents tempted to bring children younger than that should know that there’s some scary imagery involving mermaid teeth that might give nightmares to the kindergarten set. But it’s precisely Yuasa’s willingness to go off-the-beaten-track with his mermaid lead that makes Lu Over the Wall so fun for older audiences, as well. The film may be intended for children, but adults with a bit of whimsy left in their souls will find much to enjoy in Yuasa’s spirited, occasionally quite weird take on mermaid mythology.

Plus, there are merpuppies. And who doesn’t love merpuppies?

Also on the animation side, but appropriate for the under-eight crowd, are Hilda, an adaptation of Luke Pearson’s graphic novel series about an adventurous little girl with a habit of befriending all sorts of folklore-inspired creatures, and Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert’s French offering The Big Bad Wolf and Other Tales. Like Revolting Rhymes and Ivan Tsarevitch and the Changing Princess, both of which screened at last year’s festival, Big Bad Wolf is an anthology film; while the former two films offered retellings of fairy tales, Big Bad Wolf goes more the Aesop route with its trio of tales about the misadventures of farmyard animals. In the first, a neurotic pig works with a dopey duck-and-rabbit duo to deliver a human child to her parents, stork-style. In the second story, the film’s highlight, a wannabe big, bad fox whom no one takes seriously finds himself accidentally adopting a trio of newborn chickens. Wrapping things up is the tale of a duck’s attempts to become Santa Claus. Fun and cute, with an anthology format well-suited to younger moviegoers with short attention-spans, The Big Bad Wolf and Other Tales screens on February 24, March 4 and March 11.

Also hailing from France is Arthur de Pins and Alexis Ducord’s Zombillenium, based on de Pins’ graphic novel series about a monster-themed amusement park where the workforce is made up of zombies, vampires, werewolves and the odd demon. The official description of NYICFF warns that this one features “comic-book style depictions of adult revelry and gallows humor”—and if that makes Zombillenium a bit too edgy for single-digit moviegoers, it also gives the film zip that makes it, in my opinion, by far the best of NYICFF’s animated programming. There’s a zombie labor march and a rock 'n' roll witch who rides a skateboard attached to a flying broom. Oh—and a rock creature wearing a “LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE” t-shirt. For children or adults, it’s a hell of a good time. If you loved ParaNorman, do yourself a favor and shamble on over to Zombillenium, screening on March 4, 11 and 17.

Mixing it up in style and substance is Liyana, a documentary/narrative hybrid that blends elements of live-action and animation. For the former, directors Aaron and Amanda Kopp turn their lens on Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha, a home for orphaned children in Swaziland. There, under the guidance of storyteller/workshop leader Gcina Mhlophe, Swazi orphans draw upon events from their own lives to tell the story of Liyana, a young girl who embarks on a dangerous quest after the death of her parents. That story-within-a-story component of Liyana is where the animation—made up of vibrant art done by Shofela Coker—comes into play. Elements of fantasy and harsh reality, including the HIV/AIDS epidemic, combine for this unique, emotionally resonant film about the power of storytelling to heal the human spirit.

Screening this weekend—Saturday, February 24 and Sunday, February 25, respectively—are Big Fish & Begonia and Next Door Spy, a pair of films about smart, adventurous girls. The former film, recommended for ages 8 and up, hails from China and tells the story of Chun, a teenage girl who comes from a spirit world whose inhabitants are responsible for overseeing the natural order of the Earth. When a voyage to our world accidentally leads to disastrous consequences for a human boy, Chun must test the boundaries of reality itself in order to make amends. Directed by Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun, Big Fish & Begonia picks up the mantle of 2017 NYICFF offering Your Name by providing a fantastic story bolstered by gorgeous visuals.

More terrestrial in origin is Danish film Next Door Spy, written and directed by Karla von Bengtson. After moving to a new city with her mother and older sister, aspiring detective Agatha-Christine—AC, for short—is determined to unravel the secrets of her new neighbors. Agatha-Christine’s namesake is a bit too adult for the seven-plus audience Next Door Spy is recommended to; suffice to say, this one is for fans of more age-appropriate sleuths like Harriet the Spy and Nancy Drew. (Do kids still read those?) With AC’s adventure story comes a healthy dose of important lessons about friendship and empathy.

On the repertory side of things, February 24, March 10 and March 11 give us screenings of 1968 anime classic Horus: Prince of the Sun, by Grave of the Fireflies director Isao Takahata. Unavailable to screen in advance was White Fang, Alexandre Espigares’adaptation of the Jack London classic. Though I’ve focused on the festival’s animated programming here, as always, live-action films screen as well; those include the North American premieres of Sing Song and Belle and Sebastian, Friends for Life, plus Room 213, Zoo and a special preview screening of episodes one and two of the second season of Netflix’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Information on thos films and additional showtimes can be found on the festival’s website