If you only have the chance to see animated films in U.S. theaters, you might well assume that shorts are only made with 3-D computer techniques and that features have to star fairy tale figures, sentient planes and cars, prehistoric animals or exotic birds, all trying to find safe havens and/or reunite with lost family members.
The annual Ottawa International Animation Festival gives the lie to both those assumptions.
This year's festival (Sept. 17-21) screened 101 shorts and five feature films in competition, from a total of 2,033 entries from 70 countries. Also competing were reels of works from four animation schools.
A quick survey of the schedules for this year's other major animation festivals (Stuttgart, Germany; Hiroshima, Japan; Annency, France; Varna, Bulgaria; and Zagreb, Croatia) showed very little overlap with the Ottawa selections.
In addition, the Ottawa festival showed 71 short films in non-competing special showcase programs of Canadian, international and student films, and retrospectives looked at the themes of time and ghosts in recent animated films, new Russian and Canadian animators and the work of David OReilly, whose "The External World" won the festival's 2010 grand prize and who created the memorably rude baby figure in the video game which Joaquin Phoenix's character plays in "Her."
Disney and Pixar have long been sponsors of the festival, but this year they had a higher profile than ever before with a silver anniversary showing of "The Little Mermaid," programs of classic Disney shorts curated by animation historians Leonard Maltin and Jerry Beck and special advance screenings of two new shorts — Pixar's "Lava" about a lovelorn singing volcano and Disney's "Feast," telling the story of a romance through food and the point of view of the man's pet dog.
The animated documentary — which most readers are likely to think a contradiction in terms — made an impressive showing at this year's festival. Two of the five features were documentaries, combining live action and animation.
Sheila Sofian's 2013 "Truth Has Fallen" examines flaws in the American justice system through the stories of three innocent people freed from death row by the work of James McCloskey's Centurion Ministries.
Luc Chamberland's 2014 "Seth's Dominion" combines live interviews with Canadian comic book artist and illustrator Seth ("Palooka-ville" and "It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken") with animated versions of some of his semi-autobiographical comic book stories.
"Seth's Dominion" won the Best Feature award, making this the second consecutive year it went to a documentary about graphic novel creators.
The other features were fiction but with strong political themes.
In "Lisa Limone and Maroc Orange: A Rapid Love Story" (Estonia) capitalist lemons enslave immigrant oranges to pick tomatoes.
"Until Sbornia do Us Part" (Brazil) has industrialists exploiting the natural resources of a nearby island, polluting its traditions and culture and causing an environmental catastrophe.
In "Aunt Hilda" (France), a ruthless capitalist causes a global catastrophe with genetically modified crops. Oddly, all three also deal with lovers facing daunting obstacles to their relationships; none are likely to see U.S. distribution.
Another documentary, "Crime: The Animated Series" by Sam Chou and Alix Lambert, won for Best Animation Series for Adults (it was also an official selection at this year's Chicago Critics Film Festival).
The series gives vivid graphic realization (grim but sometimes also ruefully humorous) to true stories of ordinary people caught up in street violence and the legal system.
This and "Truth Has Fallen" may well show up sooner or later on American cable or even public TV.
The showreels from film schools around the world were impressively professional looking. About the only thing that might give them away as student projects is the frequency with which the narrations dealt with unhappy childhoods.
The Rhode Island School of Design won for Best School Showreel. RISD is one of the two best schools for animation in North America. (The other is Sheridan College in Ontario, but that does American students no good because Sheridan admits only Canadian residents.)
In addition to documentaries, black and white (or otherwise monochromatic) animation also proved still surprisingly viable. In fact, the Grand Prize winner was essentially black and white — Piotr Dumala's "Hippopotamy." Naked men and women in an apparently shoreless river battle over sex and kill one another while children drown in this grim Polish allegory. Once all the children sink from sight, the women do what they must to beget more.
Frankly, I either didn't understand Dumala's message or found it repellant if I did. And I didn't think it as aesthetically compelling as the judges obviously did.
I much preferred Caleb Wood's 2013 "Yield," which once again is something of a documentary in that it animates real objects (actually, road kill!) in the surroundings in which Wood found them.
Other dark films showed people getting eaten by wild dogs, a young girl hanging her alcoholic father, addiction, dismemberment and a rapping banana whose apparent food references are actually slang terms for unsafe sexual practices.
The film that literally had my jaw dropping, though, turned up among the Animated Series for Kids Competition. In an episode of a German series built around a quilt full of patchwork pictures of animals, the chicken has a problem — it has an egg stuck halfway out!
Other animals suggest solutions. Believe me, you don't want to know what the elephant suggests!
Back in 2012, the festival motto was "You can't unsee this stuff!" They could have recycled that for this year, but it was still a great festival and demonstrated the continued vitality of animation in all its themes and formats.
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 email@example.com.