New York International Children’s Film Festival brings the wide world of animation to NYC


NYC parents: Already taken the tykes to The LEGO Batman Movie and Sing? Getting tired of breaking out the Minions DVD? Then luck is on your side, as this weekend the New York International Children’s Film Festival, running from February 24-March 19, kicks off its 20th year.

The country’s largest fest geared towards children and teens, NYICFF as always boasts an impressive mix of live-action, animation, shorts and even a few docs, hailing from over 30 countries from around the globe. This year, programming director Maria-Christina Villasenor points out a particularly impressive achievement: an “almost 50/50 parity in terms of male and female directors, both on the feature and the shorts level.”

Speaking personally, I’ve always been a fan of animation, and it’s an area where NYICFF knows their stuff. Last year’s offerings included Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince, a newly restored version of Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant, and the gorgeous Denmark/France adventure story Long Way North. So I was excited to see what NYICFF has on offer this time around. Luckily, the fest doesn’t disappoint.

Opening night boasts a pair of animated features: the UK’s Revolting Rhymes and Switzerland/France co-production My Life as a Zucchini. The former film is actually two half-hour shorts, both based on Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, a book of poems that sees the classic children’s author revisit traditional fairy tales in… let’s say…  less cutesy ways. (Red Riding Hood, after the death of her grandmother, becomes a mercenary with a specialty for dealing with big, bad wolves; Snow White’s “seven dwarfs” are actually jockeys with a gambling addiction.) Hey, it’s Roald Dahl: he always has a bit of an edge to him, one that’s endeared him to kids with a bit of a misfit quality for decades. Jan Lachauer and Jakob Schuh adapted Dahl’s writings and co-directed, the latter with Bin-Han To. Lachauer previously co-directed the Oscar-nominated Room on the Broom (with Max Lang), while Lang and Schuh are responsible for Oscar nominee The Gruffalo. Both of those are kid-friendly shorts boasting a large number of famous UK actors among their voice casts, a tradition that the similar-looking Revolting Rhymes continues. Lending their pipes this time around are Rob Brydon, Bertie Carvel, Rose Leslie, Dominic West, Bel Powley and more.

Fellow opening night film My Life as a Zucchini finds itself up for an Oscar for Best Feature Animation this Sunday. Claude Barras’ film utilizes a bright, storybook Claymation style to tell a somewhat sobering tale. Icare, nicknamed “Zucchini,” lands in an orphanage after the death of his mother. The fact that the mother was alcoholic is only one indication that Barras and screenwriter Céline Sciamma (Girlhood, Tomboy), working off a novel by Gilles Paris, have no interest in ignoring the very real struggles faced by children in the foster care system. One of Zucchini’s new compatriots is alone after her mother was deported; another has a parent who sexually abused her. But Barras doesn’t wallow in these situations, instead transforming at-times-dismal reality into something hopeful and sweet.

Zucchini, through its refusal to accept that children can’t handle harsh truths about the world, exemplifies a quality that Villasenor highlights as being of primary concern to NYICFF programmers: “cultural understanding and cultivating empathy… giving parents and families openings to have dialogues about specific situations, about issues that are going on today. It’s nice to have something that opens that up for you and gives you a framework and makes you want to think more about it.”

Exposure to different cultures is a huge part of Window Horses (Canada), writer/director Ann Marie Fleming’s adaptation of her own graphic novel. Sandra Oh stars as Rosie Ming, a young Canadian poet who’s obsessed with all things France despite never having been there. The daughter of an Iranian man and a Chinese woman, Rosie is less curious about her own cultural heritage than in one day taking long walks down the Croisette. That changes when she’s invited to a poetry festival in Tehran, where through meeting the other poets and learning about Persian history and culture, she begins to become more comfortable expressing herself.

Though recommended to ages 9 and up, my personal inkling is that Window Horses will really find its audience among older children and teens with a yen for scribbling down poetry in notebooks. More than some other NYICFF animated offerings, Window Horses is measured and contemplative; its emphasis is on its main character’s journey of self-discovery, rather than on drama or comedy. (There’s an obvious connection between it and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis; fans of that earlier film would do well to check out Window Horses when it screens on March 18.) “[It’s] a really fun film in terms of the voicing of it, this slightly sardonic, wisecracking young girl who’s both finding her way and a bit lost. Sandra Oh did perfectly for that,” says Villasenor. “We felt like [Window Horses] was a really good bridge for some of our older audiences who might be interested in literature themselves, or just the notion of finding your voice.”

More on the younger side of things is Japanese entry Rudolf the Black Cat, about a sheltered young housecat who accidentally ends up in the bustling metropolis of Tokyo, halfway across the country from his home. There, he’s taken under the wing (paw?) of Gottalot, an older cat who teaches him the skills he needs to survive on the streets and maybe, just maybe, to find his way back to his beloved owner. The CG animation is less polished here than it is in Revolting Rhymes—human characters, in particular, don’t look all that great, which probably explains why directors Mikinori Sakakibara and Kunihiko Yuyama rarely show their faces—but younger kids with a fondness for the feline should be pleased. (Rudolf also makes a point of preaching the importance of reading, which, if it doesn’t make for the most riveting cinema for adults, could at least convince a few single-digit viewers that picking up a book isn’t really all that bad.) Not to ruin things, but there’s a third-act twist in this otherwise formulaic story that I wasn’t expecting, so kudos to the Rudolf team for mixing it up.

Also hailing from Japan is Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, about two teenagers—Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi), who chafes at her small-town existence, and Tokyo-dweller Taki (Ryûnosuke Kamiki)—who from time to time, for reasons no one can explain, switch bodies. Though it at first appears to be a sweet, light comedy-romance (one of the repeated gags is that every time Taki wakes up in Mitsuha’s body, the first thing he does it feel his chest, which is exactly what a teenage boy would do in that situation), screenwriter Makoto Shinkai gives proceedings a second-act twist that… well, I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice to say that Your Name is my favorite of the NYICFF offerings I was able to catch.

 The film made headlines last year when it blew past Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away to become the highest-grossing anime film ever. Watching it, it’s easy to see why Japanese audiences fell and fell hard. The story is original, the characters compelling, and the visuals absolutely gorgeous. Mitsuha living in a small, out-in-the-boonies town means Shinkai really gets to turn things up to 11 in terms of showcasing his hallmark beautiful, photorealistic landscapes. It’s easily one of the most visually stunning films of the last decade, and you should see it on as big a screen as you can manage. NYICFF has an Opening Spotlight screening on Saturday the 25th that’s already sold out; a wider theatrical run in America is kicking off on April 7 from FUNimation Entertainment.

Director Michel Ocelot presents a different sort of striking look from Your Name’s photorealisim in Ivan Tsarevitch and the Changing Princess, which draws upon a silhouette style. Like Revolting Rhymes, Ivan Tsarevitch is a feature made up of individual shorts woven together by a framing device. With Ivan Tsarevitch, that framing device is a projectionist and his two young assistants dreaming up new ways to tell classic fairy tales hailing from different cultures. (There’s Iran, India and Russia.) My favorite segment was the first, in which a girl rejected by a society plagued by monsters finds that she has the power to tame the beasts that so frighten her—that, in fact, she is a “mistress of monsters.” In Ivan Tsarevitch, the heroines aren’t content to stand by and be rescued.

From the “mistress of monsters” to Mitsuha to Window Horse’s Rosie, one of NYICFF’s strengths is the way the female characters at the center of many of its stories are well-rounded and active, rather than passive, participants in their own stories. “A really big goal for us is for kids to see themselves reflected onscreen. That means diversity broadly, but of course strong female characters” as well, argues Villasenor. To that end, the fest boasts a “Girls’ POV” short film series, which counts among its number live-action short Oscar nominee Sing. Villasenor names two female-starring, female-directed live-action films among her favorites of this year’s fest: Nicole van Kilsdonk’s The Day My Father Became a Bush (Netherlands/Belgium/Croatia) and Lola Doillon’s Fanny’s Journey (France/Belgium).

The former film, about a ten-year-old girl (Celeste Holsheimer) driven out of her unnamed country by war “is a beautiful meditation on what it means to be impacted by conflict… It’s a wonderful point of empathy and understanding for the plight of refugees.” Fanny’s Journey, meanwhile, pulls from history, based as it is on a memoir about a girl (Léonie Souchaud) who must lead a group of children across the Swiss border to safety during World War II. “It’s nice to have films that treat a similar topic with a very different approach, and [that provide] different points of access for different age groups,” said Villasenor of the two films. “Fanny, of course, with the intensity of its subject matter, is for slightly older kids and is grounded in a way where you can talk specifically about what transpired.”

With approximately 100 shorts and features being screened over NYICFF’s three-and-a-half week span, I’ve only been able to scratch the surface here. There are non-screening events, too; Villasenor looks forward to the “Animators All Around” panel, being held on March 11, where animators Mark Osborne (The Little Prince), Elizabeth Ito (2017 NYICFF short Welcome to My Life) and Rawan Rahim (2016 NYICFF short Lilou) will speak about their storytelling process in a way that “gives point of access for kids and young people [who want to know] how you take an idea from inspiration to the screen.” You can see the entire list of NYICFF’s lineup and purchase tickets on the festival website.