Crowded with major stars and their latest turns, the space for animation at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah is limited, but digging through the program for the 2018 edition there were entries that proudly represented the medium whether in the Animation Spotlight shorts program, shorts paired with a feature, or even infiltrating feature premieres given that several live-action directors included animated segments in their narratives.
Further, thanks to the Sundance Kids section, two fully animated features also screened at the festival: Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall and Alexandre Espigares’ star-studded White Fang.
Meanwhile, atop of Park City’s Main Street, the Slamdance Film Festival, running parallel to Sundance, had its own collection of animated shorts that reflected a more global flare than its more famous counterpart. There were also a couple of documentaries there that employed animation as a major storytelling tool.
Because Sundance doesn’t require any premiere status for short films, the Animation Spotlight program was comprised of several works that have been making the festival rounds for quite some time now. One delightful highlight was Estonian director Chintis Lundgren’s Manivald, a 2d piece that marks the European artist’s first partnership with the famed National Film Board of Canada.
Her character design, color palette, and overall aesthetic closely resemble that of her previous effort, Life with Herman H. Rott). Also like that earlier short, the music in Manivald is a crucial part of the short’s charm. In Manivald, Lundgren explores identity through the eyes of an eponymous fox who has just turned 33-years-old and still lives with his overbearing mother (who gifts him socks every year). What could have been a commonplace celebration turns into a problematic evening when a handsome handyman, more specifically a bisexual wolf, shows up. Both Manivald and his mother fall for him, which forces the protagonist to reconsider his current circumstances. Poignant and humorous, Manivald expands Lundgren’s candid universe.
Along the same lines, Diane Obomsawin’s I Like Girls, which played before the LGBTQ-theme grand jury prize-winner The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is a hand-drawn collection of stories about lesbian love told via anthropomorphic animals. The bittersweet tales of flawed romance and self-discovery offer plenty of laughs and an uncomplicated style that adds warmth. There are dream sequences within the already whimsical stories, and that definitely allows Obomsawin to dive deeper into distinct visual possibilities.
Less focused on imagined worlds but equally as effective was the animated short documentary, The Driver is Red, by Randall Christopher, set in 1960s Argentina when Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad was strategically hunting Nazis across the world, but more intensely in South America where many where hiding. The film uses fluid black-and-white sketches that shape-shift constantly to deliver the engrossing story of Zvi Aharoni in his quest to capture Ricardo Klement, known to the world as Adolf Eichmann.
Animation Spotlight also featured Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s widely beloved The Burden, which was theatrically released stateside as part of the touring Animation Show of Shows and has won awards from Annecy to TIFF. This darkly comedic, stop-motion musical is a standout in any program it’s included. Other successful shorts that made an appearance at Sundance were Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts in Shorts Program 1 and Bosnian-Croatian director Eva Cvijanovic’s Hedgehog’s Home, which screened before White Fang, after appearing at the Berlinale and NYFF.
Jeron Braxton’s Glucose was honored with Sundance’s short jury animation prize, presented by Youtube. The colorful cg experimental short seeks to make connections between slavery in America and the current hardships faced by people of color in this country. Using characters and backgrounds that feel directly taken from a video game, particularly Playstation games of the past decade, this myriad of ideas come together to form a singular and ambitious project.
Over at Slamdance, the most memorable and thematically daring short was Greek director Eirini Vianelli’s Icebergs. Composed of over a dozen vignettes dealing with the painful human experience and how we make sense of tragedy and misfortune, this stop-motion gem is based on the book Scenes by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Efthymis Filippou, who co-wrote films such as Dogtooth, The Lobster, and more recently The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Indeed, Icebergs feels like a Yorgos Lanthimos film performed by expressionless handmade puppets. The deadpan humor familiar to those who have seen Filippou and Lanthimos’ collaborations remains intact in this adaptation. Annoying noises in the middle of the night, terrible jobs, or even an overly happy gardener can push the characters in this short over the edge.
The paint-on-glass technique shines in Michaela Müller’s Airport, a swirling and sensorial vision of air travel from the point of view of those who are not able to cross borders freely. Sounds, conversations, and the perpetual state of alert that everyone undergoes at airports are paired with the notion of globalization in a world that only offers its benefits to a privileged few – craft and content merged beautifully in this film. From Iran, Samaneh Shojaei’s Ascribed Achievements is a quirky and brutally honest 2d portrait of family and the traits that we can escape from. Unable to confront his less than favorable physical appearance, the outspoken protagonist considers suicide as a way out, forgetting to consider the ways that his decision might backfire.
Blending stop motion, brief live-action, and hand-painted 2d animation, Kim Seung-hee’s The Realm of Deepest Knowing is a striking mixed-media work more interested in the seamlessness of its diverse parts than a clear message, but it’s captivating nonetheless.
Slamdance’s programmers also proved to be fans of Shunsaku Hayashi, a Japanese animator with two shorts at this year’s festival: Interstitial and Railment, both of which have played multiple other festivals. His uncompromising hand-drawn universes tackle big ideas about time and space with clever visual metaphors. Both of his films won awards at Slamdance: Interstitial took the Sparky Prize for best animation short, while Railment won the CreativeFuture Innovation Award.
At both festivals, a handful of filmmakers with fiction and documentary features utilized animation as a key device to portray their protagonists’ inner voices. For example, in Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals, part of Sundance’s Next section, childlike illustrations come to life to express the emotional turmoil afflicting the character of Jonah. We the Animals is based on the novel by Justin Torres and it’s a lyrical achievement elevated by the vibrant animated sequences. Panos Cosmatos’ insane midnight fever dream, Mandy, starring Nicolas Cage, also boasts nightmarish animated moments in line with the heavy metal sensibilities that coat this cinematic trip into the abyss.
Shamelessly influenced by Michel Gondry, director Boots Riley’s debut Sorry to Bother You dedicates an ingenious animated scene to the French master of whimsy. In fact, the movie in its entirety is deeply shaped by Gondry’s tangible magic. Two more films, Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot at Sundance and Pablo Bryant’s documentary Mr. Fish: Cartooning from the Deep End at Slamdance, use animation as a crucial element in their quest to honor two renowned cartoonists.
Animation is not as prominent as it should be at either gathering in snowy small town Utah, but the art form’s reach outside of the shorts programs was significant this year as more filmmakers not working strictly in animation have started to discover its creative storytelling potential. Sundance will never be Annecy, but it sure can improve its animation offerings, besides the films in its kids section. We’ll check back in 2019.