Imaginative, Inspiring: Next Door Spy

This review is part of coverage for the 2018 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Danish animated film Next Door Spy by director Karla von Bengston is a cute story of growing up and fighting to have the confidence to believe in oneself and one’s passions. Couched in a “kid in new town” setting with a splash of film noir, Next Door Spy is consistently witty and inspiring.

Next Door Spy follows the appropriately named Agatha Christine (AC for short), a girl with a love of mysteries who’s constantly playing detective to her mother’s reluctance. Her family has just recently moved to a new town in Denmark for a fresh start, but while AC sees it as the perfect opportunity to scope out new crimes, her mom (a police officer) just wants AC to be a little more “normal.” When AC learns that a local grocery has been a victim of shoplifting, she gets to work—and her prime suspect is an aloof skater boy.

The film is mostly down to earth, but is inter-spliced with black and white noir renditions of AC acting out her detective dreams. It’s an entertaining juxtaposition particularly because AC’s true love for investigation is on display. Her cherished PI’s hat and coat, along with her various makeshift gadgets, are just the right degree of “obtainable fantasy” that can inspire kids to do more yet still feel like movie magic. The mystery and non-mystery elements weave together cohesively to make all of the characters, even the adults, feel relatable.

Next Door Spy succeeds as a family film because it’s great for adults and older children looking back and younger children looking forward. Just about everyone can benefit from having a bit of AC in them.

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What Dreams Are Made of: Long Way North

This film is part of the 2016 New York International Children’s Film Festival

One person’s dreamer is another’s fool. The quest to achieve the seemingly impossible frequently rubs up against the harsh reality and possibility of failure, and what results can end up inspiring some and serving as a grave warning to others. Long Way North, a French-Danish animated film directed by Rémi Chayé, follows a young Russian girl named Sasha who holds onto her missing (and presumed dead) grandfather’s dream to reach the North Pole, in spite of her parents’ desire for her to act like a proper young girl of nobility.

The term “family film” can be a kind of backhanded compliment, implying that it’s something almost innocuous in its presentation. However, Long Way North deserves the term in the best sense possible because of how well it speaks to the aspirations and concerns of both parents and children. Sasha is a heroine who won’t let go of the spirit of adventure instilled in her by her grandfather who also puts in the hard work to fulfill those desires. In doing so, and it continuously realizing her limitations while working to overcome them, Sasha’s journey feels empowering and encouraging. Her parents, who are more concerned with whether Sasha will throw away her “childish” views, can come across as overbearing or failing to understand what gives Sasha life. However, the film also presents her parents as wanting only the best for their children and families, which is a message that resonates with older audiences, and provides an opportunity for parents and children alike to discuss the conflict of dreams and reality.

Nothing works out easily in Long Way North, from treacherous voyages through arctic waters to stubborn personalities to people going nearly insane from the prospect of starvation, but Sasha and by extension the film never give up hope.

There’s no limit to how much can be said about the visual presentation of this film. With appealing character designs built off of flat swathes of color mixed with an intentionally rough, textural line work, it reminds me somewhat of a George Seurat painting. The art style works especially well when depicting the arctic north because of the large, imposing glaciers on all sides.

The animation, even when it takes shortcuts, never feels cheap, and always conveys scale, depth, and the powerful emotions of its characters. From the imposing yet warm figure of Sasha’s grandfather to the stern, yet honorable ship captain to Sasha’s expressive eyes, Long Way North makes its characters feel all too human all to relatable no matter who they are.

Long Way North is an inspiring tale for children and adults alike. It might also be the best film I saw at the New York International Children’s Film Festival. Long Way North is getting a wider release soon, and I recommend that you check it out and see if it doesn’t help you consider how you view your own dreams.

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Learning About Death I Guess? Beyond Beyond Review

beyondbeyond

This film is part of the 2016 New York International Children’s Film Festival

Death can be a difficult concept for children to grasp. Somewhere after the idea of object permanence is learned, the next step is realizing that people can actually cease to exist. The 2014 Danish film Beyond Beyond, directed by Esben Toft Jacobson, acts as an extended metaphor for a small boy learning about and coming to accept the death of his mother. Following a young rabbit as he tries to rescue his mother from the Kingdom of the “Feather King,” the odd thing about this film is that, the more one remembers that the movie is a death metaphor, the stranger it becomes.

Thematically, Beyond Beyond succeeds in making a kids’ movie tackle a fairly mature and important subject, but there are also a number of elements that often appear out of place or maybe even unnecessary. I understand this film is aimed at a rather young audience, and that one should not demand the height of cinematic sophistication from it, but there were just times when entire scenes didn’t seem to contribute much.

I felt that Beyond Beyond‘s message gets muddled in its presentation. I just pictured a small child going, “What does Bill (a character in the film with a lackadaisical attitude whose actions are of great significance to the story) have to do with mom dying?” I also suspected, but could never quite tell, if there was any sort of religious underpinning to its image of death and the beyond. The film is not tightly structured in any way, but I also think it’s possible to look past that and see the desire to help kids through its ideas.

My favorite part of Beyond Beyond had to be the Feather King. His initial appearance only in the shadows renders him an ominous grim reaper, but he turns out to be much more interesting, especially in the way he breathes life into his children/minions.  The Feather King is voiced in the English dub by Patrick Warburton (Brock Sampson from Venture Bros.), which arguably is not the best casting possible, but I was amused by his performance nevertheless.

As an adult, it’s very likely that I just wasn’t going to connect to Beyond Beyond properly. That being said, as the credits rolled I overheard a couple of girls, who couldn’t be older than 9, discussing the film. One of them said to the other, “You have to remember, this is a film for children.”

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