Special Films from Around the World
Plus: retro ads and international animation news.
Welcome back! We’re here with a new edition of the Animation Obsessive newsletter. And this is what we’re doing:
1 — highlights from an American animation festival.
2 — animation news around the globe.
3 — the retro ad of the week.
Ready? Here we go!
1. Five underground wonders
This week, we grabbed tickets to a film festival in California — a virtual one, that is.
The GLAS Animation Festival is around eight years old. Although it’s based in America, it draws animators from every corner of the world. This year, it hosted amazing films from the likes of Estonia, Argentina, Japan and Israel.
We’ve been lucky enough to catch a few of them before. Longtime readers may know that we’ve already sung the praises of highlights like Fall of the Ibis King, A Stone in the Shoe and A Bite of Bone. We won’t repeat ourselves here. Today, we’re focusing on five new films that deserve attention.
It’s a diverse bunch. There’s humor and horror. There’s 2D, 3D and stop-motion animation — and methods that can’t easily be labeled at all. Each one is worth seeing, each for its own reasons.
Animation Obsessive is a reader-supported newsletter. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you’d like to support our writing and research, the best way is to take out a paid subscription.
Our first two picks come from Belgium and Japan. They’re made for children, but they approach that idea in radically different ways.
Luce and the Rock (13m) is the Belgian one. Director Britt Raes and her team offer up a charming cartoon that doubles as an extremely accomplished piece of motion design. Luce is all about crisp shape and warm, vibrant color — each shot is blocked out and arranged like an illustration rather than a film scene. Everything fits like toy blocks, or nesting dolls. It’s all design.
Which checks out. In a behind-the-scenes segment at GLAS, Raes explained that she “studied illustration and graphic design” before coming to animation. Part of her process is:
… to look at shapes and colors and to try and have those elements really support the story. Like, saying the same thing but from another direction [...] I find it very interesting to figure out how those elements can help tell the story.
The story, by the way, is about a small village beset by a large, living rock. It causes major problems until a child, Luce, becomes its friend. That’s familiar territory, but the film is fresh — like the hypnotic music and scratchy brushes, or the way Raes and her team depict light as goopy circles and beams that don’t cast shadows. Even when Luce “bristles” like a Miyazaki character (Raes loves Totoro), it doesn’t feel like a rehash.
Polar Bear Bears Boredom (7m) doesn’t feel like a rehash, either — but for separate reasons. It’s a film that sees Japan’s master of independent animation, Kōji Yamamura (A Country Doctor), still finding new ways to be creative after more than three decades in the business.
This time, Yamamura is riffing on Japan’s ancient Scrolls of Frolicking Animals, which date to medieval times. Animating on paper, he captures the look of traditional ink drawings, but with his own cartoony twist.
The rest of Polar Bear Bears Boredom is a curveball, too. Yamamura strings together silly puns and tongue twisters about sea creatures, in Japanese and English. The band “Casio Toruko Onsen” sings the words over a quirky electronic soundbed that constantly changes shape. (Four of the five months of production went into the soundtrack.) The film’s whole effect is weird, but wonderful.
Next, works from Estonia and Spain. While these weren’t made for children, both of them have a strong playful side nonetheless.
For us, the Estonian Sierra (16m) might be the biggest surprise of GLAS. It’s a surrealist 3D tale about a young boy, his gardening mom and his cigarette-smoking, car-racing dad. We watch as frogs scream like alarms, photographers roll along the ground and the boy eventually becomes a tire on his father’s car.
Sierra is funny, in both senses of the word. And the 3D here is stylized, colorful and chaotic — abandoning all pretense of realism. (Parts of it slightly recall the work of Priit Pärn, Estonia’s most famous animator.)
But director Sander Joon isn’t just screwing around. Even as the dad’s mustache flaps away like a bird, and he gets his son involved in an explosive race, Sierra is telling a story. It’s about a boy misunderstood by his father, and maybe even his mother, and trying to find his own path. In that sense, it’s kind of moving.
According to Joon, it’s also kind of autobiographical. He’s an artist — his father is a mechanic. As he said earlier this year:
In Estonia there is a saying that a man takes more care of his car than of his mental health. Although the times are changing, in Estonia a car is still a symbol of masculinity, a pile of rumbling metal that takes you forward in life. […] I grew up in a village where life revolved around cars.
Also blurring somewhere between comedy and poignancy is Spain’s Selection Process (3m). Stop-motion artist Carla Pereira Docampo tells a mini-story about a wolf’s job interview with three repulsive, semi-Cubist mice.
Selection Process is very short, but it feels significant. Every part of it is fine-tuned, intentional, deadpan. You see it in the staging, the script and the subtle hand animation. Docampo has apparently worked with Wes Anderson in the past, and you can tell.
After a few laugh-out-loud exchanges (“can you name five silent film actors?”), the wolf gets too honest when asked about his greatest weakness, and the film fizzles out on an irresistibly strange and awkward note. It’s risky to cut things so short, but it lands. Earlier this year, Selection Process was up for a Goya Award — it really should have won.
Our last film today is Letter to a Pig (17m) from France and Israel. This one drops humor altogether. It’s about the Holocaust.
But it’s not about the Holocaust in a way you might expect. Director Tal Kantor explained at GLAS:
I would say it’s pretty much based on my own experience as a schoolgirl. An encounter I vaguely remember with a Holocaust survivor, which is something we regularly, as kids growing up in Israel, meet every year in the Holocaust Memorial Day. […] And an unforgettable dream I had afterwards that’s stuck with me ever since. I think the dream was so powerful for me that it didn’t leave me. I had to do something with it.
Letter to a Pig circles around what the title implies. In front of a class of kids, an aging Holocaust survivor recalls how he escaped the Nazis by running into a pig sty. As they searched, one pig walked in front of the place where he hid, glancing at him for a brief moment. Decades later, haunted by that memory, the man wrote a letter to thank the pig for saving him.
Kantor has put a lot in here. Her visual style is a multidimensional mashup of live footage, traditional 2D animation and rotoscoping — all three appear in the frame. It’s refreshingly unique, and it suits the story she’s telling, which is never about just one thing.
As Kantor said at GLAS, Letter to a Pig is about the generational trauma of the Holocaust. It’s also about the idea of a pig, “such an impure animal in the Jewish religion,” being an object of gratitude. And it’s about her. The film happens in halves — first the part with the survivor, then a long, dreamlike sequence where the children encounter a pig of their own. It’s not straightforward. But it’s also hard to forget.
2. Global animation news
Annecy, Zagreb, Kyiv and more gear up
Speaking of animation festivals, we’re in the thick of them right now. All around the world, festivals are either happening or getting ready to happen. These events tend to offer exciting new filmmakers their first breaks — they’re a big deal.
This year, the most notable one in the world might be Linoleum 2022. Why? It’s in Kyiv and, despite the war, its organizers are going on with the show. They’re accepting entries until May 21. Alongside its main competition, Linoleum still has a global call out for artists to submit anti-war animations, up to 10 seconds in length.
The usual heavy hitters in the festival game are preparing, too. Animafest Zagreb just selected 41 children’s films — like the intriguing-looking Piropiro by Korean animator Miyoung Baek. Conspicuously in the mix are three cartoons by Soyuzmultfilm. One of them, the visually impressive My Friend Tiger, comes from Tatiana Kiseleva (A Tin Can).
Annecy, for its part, has revealed that it’s giving out a pair of lifetime achievement awards — one of them to Jennifer Lee, who heads up Walt Disney Animation Studios. And Poland’s Animocje Festival just handed a special prize to the Croatian film All Those Sensations in My Belly, which wowed us last year.
Best of the rest
Vlasta Pospíšilová, a Czech legend and “the last of Jiří Trnka’s famous animators’ guard,” has passed away at 87. (Thanks to Toadette for the tip.)
The week’s main American story was Nimona. Alex Dudok de Wit wrote that the film “looked for a while like the most brutal casualty of the shuttering of Blue Sky […] Netflix’s resuscitation of a Disney-canceled film is big news, and symbolic.”
In Ukraine, a famous TV presenter warned against setting children in front of Russian cartoons on YouTube, as it indirectly funds the invasion. He illustrated his point with a nightmarish image of Masha and the Bear in a military truck.
Meanwhile, in Russia: “Now we have to refocus on other markets, to where they are waiting for us, where they are ready to see us,” says the head of Soyuzmultfilm. “This is the Middle East, Asia, Latin America.”
In Uganda, producer Raymond Malinga wants his contribution to Disney’s new pan-African series Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire to break stigmas and spread African animation worldwide.
American animation site Cartoon Brew has a new editor-in-chief. Jamie Lang, formerly of Variety, has been there since early April. “I’m over the moon to be shifting to covering animation full time!” Lang tweeted.
Thanks for reading today’s issue so far! We hope you’re enjoying it.
The last section below is for members (paying subscribers). We look into a late work by Robert “Bobe” Cannon, the most important animator in mid-century cartoons.
Known for his time at UPA, and for animating on The Dover Boys, Cannon spent the final years of his career bouncing between studios. In the process, he left a trail of unique and endearing pieces. This ad offers a chance to reflect on his one-of-a-kind ability.
Members, read on. Everyone else — we’ll see you in the next issue!