If you're weary of animated features about anthropomorphic planes (or supercharged snails) competing in a race or fairy creatures (and their companion snails) protecting a forest and you wonder if animation can deal with more meaningful topics, the answer is decidedly yes.
At last month's Ottawa International Animation Festival, animated features had more of a presence than ever. From its 1976 beginning, the OIAF focused on animated shorts. Then, in 2001, it introduced a feature competition. Usually, major American releases do not compete there, with the exception of "Coraline" in 2009 (it didn't win).
This year, more features than ever (nine) competed, and three showed out of competition. "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2" had a special screening prior to its theatrical release. And Adam Elliot's "Mary and Max," the 2009 Grand Prize winner, and Chris Sullivan's "Consuming Spirits" from the 2011 festival showed in retrospectives of their independent creators' works.
A look at the entries:
— The Australian clay animation "Mary and Max" (voiced by Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman) tells the decades-long story of an unlikely friendship between an Australian girl and the middle-aged American man with Asperger's syndrome whose name she picks out of a phonebook to correspond with. It's very funny, very moving and very strange.
— The American "Consuming Spirits" uses drawn figures to follow three miserable small-town characters whose lives have been ruined by alcohol and the intervention of social services.
Features actually in competition presented a rich array of styles, techniques, subject matter and country of origin.
— The French-Belgian "Approved for Adoption" ("Couleur de Peau: Miel") recounts the life of Korean-born cartoonist Jung (seen in live action as an adult and in 8-millimeter home movies as a child). Three-year-old Jung was found wandering the streets after the Korean War and adopted by a Belgian family. Based on Jung's graphic novels, the film deals with his problems with his European family and his sense of not belonging anywhere.
— "It's Such a Beautiful Day" combines three of American Don Herzfeldt's short films into the life story of his stick figure hero Bill. Though minimalist in appearance, Herzfeldt's film wryly explores the human experience and even dares to challenge the infinite. When Bill dies, the narrator changes things so that Bill not only survives but winds up outliving the universe.
— "Anima Buenos Aires" brings together four top Agentine animators to paint musically charged sketches of the city that are variously satiric, sexy and funny, linked by a technically clever sequence of stenciled dancers tangoing across the walls of Buenos Aires.
— "The Pain and the Pity" by England's Phil Mulloy ends his trilogy about the Christie family. Its first two entries won OIAF Grand Prizes earlier. Mulloy's style is aggressively minimalist (black silhouettes of heads against a solid color background and humorous computerized voices), and his material is darkly satirical, not to mention philosophical and weirdly humorous.
Most of the Christies died in the preceding film, and the characters here are supposedly the actors who played them. They find themselves trapped in a doorless room with no way out until a giant spider makes one of them an offer of escape but at a terrible price. Again, most of them wind up dead.
— The Hungarian "Cycle" follows a cosmonaut trying to escape from a nearly deserted city enveloped by a life-destroying black fog. Essentially live action with extensive but low-key special animation effects, the film puts its protagonist and audience through repetitions of the same scenes for the sort of philosophical science fiction tale that really makes little sense on a practical level.
— "A Liar's Autobiography" employs multiple animation techniques to realize Monty Python member Graham Chapman's fictionalized memoirs. Improbably, Chapman himself (who died in 1989) narrates (partly owing to some canny sound editing). The other Pythons, except Eric Idle, provide various voices, and Cameron Diaz voices Sigmund Freud.
— Brazil's "The Boy and the World" presents a winsome tale of a little village boy trying to find his father who has gone to work in the city. It also functions as an indictment of modern Brazilian society and its destruction of its environment and pastoral heritage. I can't help thinking, though, that Eastern European animators did this sort of thing 40 years ago in only seven minutes or so.
— "Arjun: The Warrior Prince," produced in part by Walt Disney Pictures (India), retells a section of the Mahabharata, the monumental Indian epic, in much-abbreviated form and in a cartoon style that recalls DreamWorks' "The Prince of Egypt."
It actually played in this country in May 2012, on 10 screens. Disney perhaps held up further theatrical release here because of the violence (a high body count and the occasional dismemberment) and the fact that a curse makes Arjun spend part of the film as a eunuch (he would appear to be a servant girl to viewers unfamiliar with the epic).
— The winning feature, Sweden's "Tito on Ice," is really a live-action documentary with some cut-out and stop-motion animation (and has nothing to do with ice-skating). To promote their graphic novel "Bosnian Flat Dog," Max Andersson and Lars Sjunnesson tour the former Yugoslavia with a (fake) mummified Marshal Tito in a refrigerator and interview members of various ethnic groups (who mostly seem quite amused by their project).
You might now ask whether you can see any of these. Some, yes. "A Liar's Autobiography," "Arjun: The Warrior Prince" and "Mary and Max" are all available here on DVD; "Approved for Adoption" can be had only in the PAL format, which is not used here.
The charming French film "The Painting" ("Le Tableau") from the 2012 OIAF, available now on DVD, deals with characters in an unfinished painting and their society. which is stratified according to how complete their figures are. One character goes looking for the artist to persuade him to finish the painting, thereby putting everyone on an equal footing. It speaks to both children and adults on many levels.
Both "Mary and Max" and "The Painting" should definitely top the to-see list for any animation lover.
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.