I returned a few days ago from the Czech Republic where I judged the feature film categories at Anifilm, a fun festival situated in the quaint lakeside resort town of Trebon that was filled with great people and positive vibes. The three-person feature film jury consisted of Portuguese filmmaker Regina Pessoa (Tragic Story with Happy Ending, Kali the Little Vampire), Slovenian festival director Igor Prassel (Animateka International Animated Film Festival) and myself. (That’s us in the photo above.)
The Anifilm organizers smartly divided features into two categories: adult and children’s films. We watched five films in each category. In the Adult category, we awarded the top prize to Chris Sullivan’s sweeping and uncompromising Southern Gothic tale Consuming Spirits, and also gave special mention to Don Hertzfeldt’s feature It’s Such a Beautiful Day. These two films alone don’t make a trend, but add Paul and Sandra Fierlinger’s My Dog Tulip and Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues to the list, and you could argue that American indie feature animation is experiencing a renaissance right now. All of these films utilize animation effectively to express deeply personal visions.
The other three features in the Adult category—O Apóstolo from Spain, A Liar’s Autobiography from the United Kingdom and Fat Bald Short Man from Colombia—each had positive qualities and exhibited the kind of maturity and narrative ambition that is often lacking in mainstream feature animation fare.
The children’s category was less impressive. The five features were European co-productions that relied on cliches borrowed from popular American films. Three of the films featured hot air balloons (UP, of course), and a number of them used the ‘dead parents’ trope that is an all-too-common fallback for lazy animation scriptwriters. We awarded the children’s prize to The Day of Crows (Le jour des corneilles) which was unquestionably the most interesting film of the bunch. The hand-drawn animated film featured appealing (if inconsistent) animation and character designs, along with gorgeous backgrounds. It reached for Miyazaki-style mysticism before attempting to hamhandedly explain everything in the last act. Imperfect, but worth a look.
Animation director Bill Plympton wrote about his recent experience judging the feature animation categories at the Stuttgart Animation Festival in Germany. He watched eight features at that festival, and it’s interesting to note that not a single one of those films was in competition at Anifilm. It’s a reminder that feature animation is a flourishing art form today. The handful of mega-budget corporate-studio films that dominate American multiplexes barely scratch the surface of what’s available in the marketplace.
The good news is that institutional support is growing for more diverse types of feature animation. Most major animation festivals now have feature film categories, and of course, there’s the Oscars, which hands out an Academy Award specifically for animated features. The American distributor GKIDS has made a commitment to distributing foreign animated features, and this site you’re reading attempts to cover independent and foreign animated features as few other major animation media outlets have in the past.
More and more companies are turning their attention to the rich world of feature animation, but there is still plenty of room for others to join. For example, when will Criterion begin releasing art house animated features? When will distributors bring foreign animated features into multiplexes across the country? Exciting times are ahead in the feature animation field.
(Jury photo by Jan Hromádko)