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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Really Funny, Really Real: The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales

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

As much as fans of animation might sometimes want cartoons to be treated as merely humorous entertainment for children, there’s something downright impressive with a work that works as kids’ comedy and sticks the landing. Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert’s The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales succeeds so well that to talk about it as a “funny cartoon” seems inadequate—yet it’s the perfect description.

Broken up into three segments, The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales is an anthology centered around a farm and the Looney Tunes-style animals that inhabit it. The first segment sees a pig, along with his well-meaning but incompetent duck and rabbit friends, try to deliver a human baby to her parents. The second features the ironically titular “big bad fox,” who ends up having to raise the very chicks he’s trying to eat. The third is a Christmas special, where pig, duck, and rabbit try to fill in for Santa Claus and deliver presents to the world. All of them are loosely connected, presented as if all the animals are performing a stage play for the audience for comedic effect.

What makes The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales work so well is that the humor is very much a part of the narrative, giving the jokes a proper sense of continuity. In many other cartoons, humor consists of a series of jokes (sometimes references, sometimes not) that come one right after another. If they’re too reliant on single punchlines or winks and nods, the whole thing starts to feel less like an experience and more a joke-delivery system. But the film sets up, executes, and nails both its major and minor gags, even throwing in some sensibly heart-warming moments in the process. Contributing to the levity of the entire experience is the art style of the film, with varying widths in the line work and a bright palette that looks as much picture-book as it does comic strip.

My favorite segment is The Big Bad Fox, and I assume that the creators thought the same if they decided to feature it in the title. There’s a constant turning of expectations centered around the fox’s relationship to his “children,” and the sight of three adorable little chicks fully believing they’re apex predators never stopped being entertaining. It’s sort of like if the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons featuring the chickenhawk were taken up a notch and then given a bigger heart.

After the film’s screening, the creator Benjamin Renner was interviewed. He described the origins of the film as comics he used to draw for his family as Christmas and birthday presents, often about how the animals lost the “real” presents along the way. While answering the audience’s questions (all from kids), my big takeaway is that Renner provides a strong example of how the ideas and inspirations of one’s childhood can still thrive and inspire in adult, professional life.

Faithfulness Without Adherence: White Fang (2018)

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

The winding story of a wild wolf-dog that endures multiple hardships and discovers civilization, Jack London’s White Fang is a vivid and compelling adventure practically made for film. But adapting London is a challenge in this age, given his starkly racist views—they may not have been prevalent in this particular novel, but they still permeate his legacy. Director Alexandre Espigare’s 2018 White Fang is a visually rich 3DCG-animated feature-length interpretation aims for a spiritually faithful yet more sensitive version of London’s narrative to notable effect.

I want to be clear that I did not go into the film with a clear memory of the novel or any previous adaptations, and at first sought to enjoy it strictly as a children’s animated movie. In that respect, it succeeds. The animation, resembling somewhere between an oil painting and wood carvings, is consistently beautiful. Any visual hiccups are fairly minor and do not detract from the overall presentation. The subject matter is prone to violence, but the violence is given context and is presented respectfully without glorifying carnage.

But when looking back at the original novel and comparing, it’s clear that this film takes great pains to update the narrative to emphasize the positive aspects of cultural exchange without making it a one-way street. White Fang’s time in the wild with its mother shows a strong familial bond that does not fade away as it does in London’s book. Human characters are shown in all lights, but it is largely kindness and good will that stay with White Fang. At the same time, White Fang does not “progress” from “savage” to “civilized,” but harnesses aspects of both his origins in the wild and his experience with other species in order to survive.

Overall, the 2018 White Fang is a smart and respectful update to the original that adapts to the times. It’s more culturally considerate, with a message that soundly goes against the modernist/enlightenment push that can be interpreted from the novel. Yet it’s still a thrilling and moving narrative that embraces the awe and terror of nature and humankind alike, never faltering as a classic story.

Faces and Feet: Lu Over the Wall

Director and animator Yuasa Masaaki has gone from being the darling of animation connoisseurs to mainstream success story thanks to the success of Devilman Crybaby. In many ways, that series embodies what Yuasa is best known for—experimental animation that moves and undulates with a dream-like quality. His 2017 film (and the subject of this review), Lu Over the Wall, tackles a different yet challenging audience in its own right: children.

Kai is a middle schooler living in Hinashi, a small fishing village known for its sheer lack of sunlight. A DJing hobbyist, his online videos are discovered by two classmates—Kunio and Yuuho—who try to get him to join their band. Uninterested at first, Kai discovers that practicing with them will give him the opportunity to explore the merfolk legends surrounding the town, which results in the three meeting a real live music-loving mermaid named Lu. What ensues is a popping, lyrical exploration of the way dreams and curiosity affect generations of families, as well as the power of discovering when to uphold traditions, and when to move on from them.

There is a very human quality to the movie, especially in the way that Kai’s mood swings are never explicitly explained. When he transitions from deadpan introspection to energetically enthusiastic, is it that the legends he’s been reading about are real? Or is it that Yuuho and Kai are providing him the peer emotional support he never realized he needed? The characters shift and evolve in subtle and realistic ways. Growth doesn’t come as one continuous wave, but in ebbs and flows that only truly stand out when stepping back to view an individual (or a community) as a whole. Perhaps it might be better to compare their development with music—at times fast, at times slow, but with a sense of rhythm that says something is going to happen, and you’d better be ready for it.

As expected, the animation quality itself is big on expressiveness. Characters move and emote constantly, their motions feeling akin to a more subdued and subtle Ping Pong: The Animation. That is, until the dancing starts or the action gets moving. At that point, it veers somewhere between Yuasa as seen in Kaiba and the classic cartoons of Tex Avery. While his non-standard aesthetic might garner worry that it would not fly with kids, this wasn’t the case at all. Laughs and voiced indicators of understanding could be heard throughout the young audience viewing the film. As impressive as the visuals were, they never eclipsed the story nor the theme of small-town dreams.

While it’s easy to assume that his form of twisted and eerie animation could only work on an audience of refined animation experts, Lu Over the Wall shows how Yuasa’s style is more versatile than first impressions give. It’s uplifting, thought-provoking, and still just plain fun.

[NYICFF 2017] Driven by Dreams: Ancien and the Magic Tablet / Napping Princess

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

There are few quotes in science fiction more famous than Arthur C. Clarke’s above. While the idea largely has to do with how science fiction extrapolates the possibilities that can be envisioned from scientific development, Kamiyama Kenji’s new animated film, Ancien and the Magic Tablet, plays with the notion in an interesting way, using a blend of dreams and reality to fuse technology and magic together throughout its narrative.

As a warning, while I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers, the fact that this film is full of surprises only five minutes in means I can’t avoid talking about at least a few of the twists.

Ancien and the Magic Tablet begins with the story of a princess of a kingdom, Ancien, who is trapped in a cage above the royal castle. Her kingdom, known as Heartland, is ruled by her wise father, who is responsible for spreading the use of automobiles throughout their land. The reason Ancien is locked away is because she has a mysterious power to bring inanimate objects to life, including dolls and cars, an ability that would turn all of Heartland upside down.

…Except that it’s all a dream and the actual story is about a girl named Morikawa Kokone, a perpetually sleepy Japanese high schooler living in Okuyama Prefecture in the “far flung” future year of 2020—shortly before the Tokyo Olympics. Living with her widowed father, who works as a mechanic and programs self-driving car AI for the elderly residents of their town, Kokone learns that her father (or rather his computer tablet) holds valuable secrets worth a lot to some very important people. Kokone ends up on an adventure to Tokyo to get to the bottom of all this, all while she keeps having dreams about Ancien and Heartland—a world based on stories her father told her as a child—that mysteriously play out in reality as well.

One of the main thrusts of Ancien and the Magic Tablet (known in Japan as Hirune Hime: Shiranai Watashi no Monogatari, or “Napping Princess: The Story of the Unknown Me”) is a treatise on the benefits of self-driving cars. Ancien and her tablet are overt parallels to the AI technology that Kokone’s father possesses, and it’s portrayed largely in terms of its benefits. In regards to this stance, the film impresses me because it doesn’t try to remain neutral or passive in terms of the beliefs it’s trying to convey on such a controversial topic.

Given the writer and director Kamiyama’s previous works (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Eden of the East), a certain level of love and faith in technology is expected. While Ancien could do more to address the repercussions self-driving cars could have on the global economy, I don’t hold it against the movie too much because it does emphasize certain benefits that don’t come up as often. For example, it can be argued that self-driving cars aren’t only about taking away control, they can be about ensuring safety because of loss of control or disability. A more nuanced approach would’ve been interesting in its own way, but I can live without it at least for one film.

Going back to Arthur C. Clarke, the dream world of Ancien, particularly the “magic tablet’s” ability to “bring things to life,” are basically a fairy tale metaphor for real-world technology. However, because the events in Ancien’s and Kokone’s sides of the story mirror each other and even seem to influence each other, it’s an ongoing mystery as to how the two narratives are related. Is it somehow possible that Kokone is tapping into an alternate reality? The film keeps you wondering right until the very end, and the ultimate explanation for the relationship between Ancien and Kokone’s worlds is actually very satisfying and makes absolute sense.

Ancien and the Magic Tablet feels like the start of a conversation rather than a definitive conclusion. I hope we continue to see its themes in future animated films.

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[NYICFF 2017] I Didn’t Even Know It: Window Horses

This film was shown as a part of the 2017 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Poetry has never really been in my wheelhouse. As a kid, I enjoyed reading Poe, and I even tried my hand at poetry myself, but my enjoyment of and experience has been limited. Against the odds of my own ignorance/inability to understand things like “iambic pentameter,” the animated film Window Horses created and directed by Ann Marie Fleming has helped increase my appreciation of poetry, a feat I thought impossible.

Window Horses follows Rosie Ming, an aspiring Canadian poet who holds a deep fondness for France despite never visiting it. When she receives an invitation to a poetry festival in Iran, it gives her an opportunity to learn about a new culture, gain a new perspective on what it means to write poetry, and even learns some important details about her own life.

I can relate to Rosie Ming’s initial naivete on various levels. I lived in Europe for a number of years, and while it wasn’t my first time being out of the United States, interacting with people from all over the world made me realize just how “American” my way of thinking is. I’m also Asian like Rosie, and am woefully under-educated when it comes to my own ethnic history. At one point, Rosie is talking to an exiled Chinese poet named Di Di, without being aware of the significance of1989 in Chinese History—the year of Tiananmen Square. I was continuously invested in seeing Rosie’s horizons expand as she learns about the political power of poetry, about why Iran is considered a land of poetry, and the ability for poetry to convey thoughts and feelings both large and small.

The film goes to great lengths to animate the poetry recitals themselves, with the style and imagery different according to the contents of each poem. Along with the impressive readings from the voice actors themselves, I felt myself being moved by the poems in Window Horses in ways I would have never expected given my own general lack of interest in poetry. One line that stood out to me in the film was the idea that poetry needn’t be and shouldn’t be enjoyable only by the educated and intelligent. The ability to feel the power of a poem is perhaps even more important, and I definitely felt their impact while watching Windows Horses, albeit with assistance from the film’s visuals.

Given the content, I was genuinely surprised to find out that Window Horses wasn’t an autobiographical film along the vein of Persepolis. In a Q&A after the film, Fleming mentioned her own multicultural background (half-Chinese, born in Japan, moved to Canada) as the inspiration for Rosie Ming, and that her experiences with people from all around the world provided the basis for many of the film’s characters. The result is a film with a great deal of universality, and one I’d encourage anyone to watch.

As for me, I might actually dare myself to actually start writing poetry. Perhaps I should spare everyone my inevitably amateurish scrawls, but then I think about Rosie’s own willingness to just go out there and put her heart on the line. It’s inspirational.

[NYICFF] Share, Care, Dare: My Life as a Zucchini

This film was screened as part of the 2017 New York International Children’s Film Festival

Children’s fiction is built on the stories of orphans, carrying inherent challenges that are easy to understand no matter one’s background or upbringing. The question that faces any narrative concerning orphans is how to portray both the hopes and sorrows of such an experience. The French/Swiss animated film My Life as a Zucchini, directed by Claude Barras, portrays and balances the lives and trials of orphan life brilliantly.

Based on a book by the same name, My Life as a Zucchini centers around a young boy named Icare, who is given the nickname Zucchini (Courgette in the original French). One day, after an accident occurs while Zucchini is playing with his mom’s empty beer cans, he ends up having to live at an orphanage. Faced with a new environment, Zucchini learns about the lives of his fellow orphans and all of their unique circumstances.

My Life as a Zucchini is animated in stop-motion, and the models used carry an eerie charm to them somewhat reminiscent of the characters in Edward Scissorhands. They can be called cute, but due to the characters’ appearances, particularly their eyes, there is a constant mix of pain and joy present in their expressions. This aesthetic matches well with the narrative content of the film, which pulls its punches only slightly in depicting the characters’ struggles. This is certainly not a film that patronizes its young target audience.

The element of the film that struck me hardest was the different varieties of sadness that existed in the children at the orphanage. Zucchini carries around a beer can; the only memento he has of his mother. One boy, Simon, is a bully of sorts, but it’s clear that he uses this bravado to mask the pain of not having his parents. One of the girls is implied to have been abused by her father, which has left her with some expressions of trauma, though it should be mentioned that the other children are shown to play with her and treat her like one of their own. Somehow, however, it is one of the cutest and seemingly innocuous moments that claws at my heart. Another girl’s mother was deported, and whenever she hears a car pull up to the orphanage she runs out and yells, “MOMMY?!” only to be disappointed over and over.

I want to emphasize that this is not a film about showing the crushing horrors of reality, and that the kids’ lives at the orphanage are portrayed with a great sense that life can get better, and that in many ways it’s not so bad for them now. After all, many are there to escape from worse circumstances, and there’s an unspoken bond of trust and understanding between Zucchini and the rest.

One surprising element of the film is that it actually talks about sex pretty candidly, especially for a kids’ movie. It takes the form of kids trying to figure out what happens when a man and a woman get together, but the statement “his willy explodes” should say it all. I have to wonder if it caught any of the parents off guard.

My Life as a Zucchini is a powerful work that resonates emotionally on many subtle levels. It’s definitely worth watching no matter your age. I see it as a way to open up to the conversation on a number of difficult topics with your loved ones, whether they’re your children, your parents, your relatives, or your friends.