Reviews: animation & artistic creation collide in Stopmotion

Stopmotion,
Directed by Robert Morgan,
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Stella Gonet, Tom York, Caoilinn Springall, James Swanton

I have been eager to see this film since Phil posted the trailer here on LFF; a lifelong love of animation (especially stop-motion work), and of horror, this film was calling to me. I’m delighted to report that I was not disappointed – this is one of the more unusual British horrors of recent years, delving into psychology, family ties versus our own urge to create our own path, and the lengths an artist will go to when creating something. Just how much of yourself can you pour into your creation without endangering your sense of self and the real world around you?

Ella (Aisling Franciosi) is a young animation artist, but instead of forging her own path, she’s spinning her wheels, helping her mother Suzanne (Stella Gonet) with her work. Her mother is a revered figure in the world of animated film – one friend comments how her work was required viewing at art college – but age and progressive illness have robbed her hands of their once finely tuned skills, so Ella is effectively now her hands, painstakingly setting up each frame of her mother’s final stop-motion film, millimetre by millimetre.

It’s work which requires a huge investment of time and attention, time she should be spending carving out her own artistic identity and work (as it opens the two women are even dressed alike), so Ella is chafing, and it doesn’t help that her mother is overbearing and seems quite uncaring about the demands she is making on her daughter, which increases her resentment. Interestingly Franciosi and Morgan opted to show this simmering resentment not through explosive anger, but through a far more nuanced and subtle performance. Just like the demanding art she works at,

Ella is good at keeping herself relatively still, emotionally as well as physical, instead allowing only small changes in expression and body language to hint as the growing tempest within her; it’s a damned fine bit of acting craft on her part. When illness puts her mother in the hospital, at first Ella considers finishing her film for her, but she really wants to create her own, and realises this is her chance at last. Her boyfriend arranges for her to borrow an empty apartment in an almost deserted block of flats to use as a nice, quiet studio space, and she sets herself up to… Realise that now she has the time, she’s not sure what story she wants to tell (I’m sure many of us who have created works have experienced that phenomenon, our best ideas seem to come when we don’t have time to work on them!).

It’s at this point she meets the only other person she ever seems to see in the building, Caoilinn Springall’s unnamed young girl, who with a child’s curiosity asks what she is doing and if she can look. And with that lack of filters that kids have she is quite blunt in telling Ella that her ideas aren’t good, and instead proposing some story ideas of her own. Slowly she starts to make a new story, a quite disturbing-looking one, about the figure of a woman in fear, fleeing through a forest, being pursued by a slow but relentless being, the Ash Man.

As the girl encourages her not just to change the story, but to start using, shall we say “unusual” material for creations, including raw meat, or organic items instead of the usual metal armature skeleton inside her figures. And it is at this point that Ella’s imagination and work and the real world start to overlap one another – the stress and resentment of looking after her ailing mother, of carrying out work for an ungrateful person, of feeling her own life has been left behind, finally starts to seep out from this seemingly quiet, centred woman.

This is a beautifully made film, and it is quite clear Morgan and his crew have gone to great lengths to craft each scene to be just so. Even at the opening of the film this is obvious – we see Ella in a nightclub, lit by flickering strobe lights, their periodic bursts making the dancers around her appear to be almost stop-motion figures themselves, while with each flash of the strobes Ella’s facial expressions change. It was a statement of intent made right at the start of the film, and one I felt they adhered to throughout.

It’s delightfully disturbing and unsettling viewing, the psychological elements, the stop-motion moments, the clever cinematography and use of sound and music (the soundscape is superb and compliments the visuals perfectly) all work together, while the creepy nature of inert items being brought to life is mined well, making nods to creators like the great Jan Švankmajer (“Prague’s alchemist of film”) and the Brothers Quay among others. Slowly building horror, disturbing, atmospheric, visually and aurally beautiful, this one is highly recommended.

Stopmotion from IFC is released in cinemas from February 23d, and on streaming from March 15th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Art College 1994

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023 – Art School 1994
Directed by Liu Jian,
Starring the voices of Jia Zhangke, Zheng Dasheng, Xu Lei, Wang Hongwei, Peng Lei, Ren Ke, Xu Zhiyuan, Shen Lihui

This animated film from China took around five years to complete, so one of the film festival programmers told us before the screening, drawn in the more traditional 2D animation style, which is, of course, very labour-intensive, yet often worth it for the distinctive aesthetic and feel it can give. In the case of this Chinese, animated slacker film (there’s a phrase I have never used before!), it also suits the tone of the film and the characters very well.

Set, as you may infer from the title, in the mid-90s, the film follows the lives of a group of students at a small, but well-regarded art college in China,  Zang Xiojun (Dong Zijian) and Rabbit (Chizi) are the main focus of the film, Zang with his floppy hair and the permanently attached earphones for his music (a cassette Walkman) is more the unfocused dreamer of the group, listening to bootleg Nirvana cassettes, stifled by the insistence of his tutors that he adhere to classical styles instead of exploring new ideas (which you’d expect to be encouraged in an art college, but not here, in China of 1994, where modern Western art movements are especially reviled).

Rabbit is more pragmatic – at least when not pondering out loud on second hand philosophy he’s picked up from bits of books and hasn’t actually thought out. A bit lazier, when he does focus he is more likely to be thinking about how his degree will get him a decent paying job, how he’d like to be famous (because then “he wouldn’t have to actually paint much”, thinking about a girlfriend. It’s not that Zang doesn’t consider these things, he even joins the odd philosophic musing over beer and cigarettes, but he is far more into considering what is art, and how he can do something that is new and interesting to him in a world where it feels like so many earlier artists have done all the innovation already (at one point he even burns a pile of his art, which a more pretentious artist takes as an actual artistic piece in itself).

The film moves at a gentle pace, and the remaining cast of friends and classmates, each dealing with their studies, their hopes for the future, dreams of what they could be and want to be, versus what the world of the time will likely actually let them be, is one many of us will find very familiar. Small-town Chinese art college in the 90s, perhaps, but there is so much that is just universal there that, despite the language, it feels very familiar, and had me thinking back to my own college days and blushing to think there would be nights in our student gaffe where I or my friends would be those characters, drinking cheap booze, holding forth on what we thought were well-considered, mature, informed Great Insights, which in retrospect were hopelessly naive, because, despite thinking we were mature, we really hadn’t experienced much life yet, not really, and understood even less of it, but we were still filled with that longing for an imagined future we thought we’d make where others failed.

The 2D animation was worth those years of effort and labour; this just wouldn’t feel the same in CG animation (although there is a small use of CG for some backgrounds). Aside from the longing to shape some perfect life that will fulfil us after graduation, the film also muses on art and the nature of what art actually is, and who decides it is art or not, with one character declaring anything can be art. Jian seems to incorporate this into the animation itself, with frequent small asides that focus on something away from the characters, be it shimmering water below a bridge, a beetle trying to climb a wall, the way paint slowly peels from the wall.

This is a film that, despite being another country and culture, fits in perfectly with the likes of some Western slacker films (such as Linklater), because the youthful fears and dreams are pretty universal to most people, in any country, in any time.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Goodbye Don Glees

EIFF2022 – Goodbye Don Glees,
Directed by Atsuko Ishizuka,
Starring Natsuki Hanae, Yuki Kaji, Ayumu Murase

Making its UK debut at the 75th Edinburgh International Film Festival, Ishizuka’s Goodbye Don Glees comes out of the Madhouse stable, and we got to see it relatively quickly by the standards of some Japanese films – it was released only in February in Japan. Ostensibly it’s a coming-of-age tale – Roma (voiced by Natsuki Hanae) and Toto (Yuki Kaji) are best friends, founders and only members of the Don Glees club. They’re the two uncoolest kids in their school and small town, a situation that only gets worse as they go through Junior High and are about to move on up, and Toto goes off to a special school programme in Tokyo, leaving Roma stuck at home, shovelling manure on the family farm – not exactly his dream life.

When Toto returns for a few days for a big local festival, he’s boasting a cool haircut and big-city manners and confidence, making Roma feel even more left behind, but as the film goes on we discover Toto’s life isn’t as perfect as he projects. He’s barely back before he’s introduced to a new, third member of the Don Glees, a slightly younger, very exuberant boy, Drop, who seems full of boundless energy and enthusiasm, becoming something of an engine for driving the older two forward into an adventure, which includes tracking a crashed drone they were using to take photos, a forest fire and a wilderness trek.

In the time-honoured tradition, the adventure as they head out into, then get lost in, the forest, leads to hidden thoughts, fears, hopes and submerged emotions coming out. And yes, we’ve all seen similar tales before, of course, but that really doesn’t distract from this story, because Ishizuka handles it so deftly – she revealed when writing it then coming to direct it, that she wanted to avoid “anime speak”, where certain styles, even pauses, are used quite a lot. She said she thought of it the way she would approach a live-action film, and told her voice actors that she wanted it to be more naturalistic, more the way teens actually talk to one another. It certainly works, you quickly come to love the characters and feel their emotions. There’s a good bit more to it than that, but I won’t risk spoilers, except to say that it involves some very deeply emotional moments (be prepared to be blinking away tears at a couple of points – in the best way). I was reminded of other coming-of-age films, especially Stand By Me, and Ishizuka actually mentioned in the post-film talk that it has indeed been a huge influence.

The animation is frequently gorgeous, especially the nature scenes – the forest looks beautiful, a night-sky in the woods as the kids stare into the Milky Way is breathtaking, while rivers and waterfalls are recurrent visual themes, with especial importance for young Drop’s story arc, flipping between scenes in the Japanese countryside to time Drop spent living in Iceland. Talking with the audience through an interpreter after the screening, Ishizuka described her feelings that animation should be beautiful, that some scenes should look like a painting.

Edinburgh Film Festival - Goodbye Donglees 02
(Director and writer Atsuko Ishizuka talking to the audience after the Edinburgh International Film Festival screening of her Goodbye Don Glees – taken from several rows back in a dark cinema, so please excuse the quality!)

Goodbye Don Glees warmly captures those teenage years of yearning and doubt and hope as you totter on the bores of childhood into adulthood, that huge importance of good friends, of the time you spend with them, how that will mark you for life, create some of the core emotions and memories that will be inside your for as long as you live; for younger viewers it will talk to them of their own lives as they grow, for the adults it will remind you of the importance of those years, emotions, friendships and what they meant to you, what they still mean to you years on. A beautiful-looking, wonderfully emotional work, Ishizuka told us that there will be a UK release in November – I highly recommend watching out for this one.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Animation at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

My first day at the 2022 edition of the world’s longest continually running film festival (the EIFF now in its 75th year), and I started off with three screenings back to back, all in the animation strand. The first two showings were the two halves of the annual McLaren Animation Awards nominees (named in honour of acclaimed Scottish animation pioneer, Norman McLaren). We didn’t have them at the much-reduced EIFF last summer, so it was especially nice to see them return for the first time since 2019 in the Pre-Covid World. The McLarens are always one of my personal favourite segments of the EIFF – they showcase a pretty diverse array of (often very young) talent, tackling different subjects, using very different styles and animation techniques. I often see some of them crop up months later in shortlists for major awards like BAFTA or even our old chum, Oscar, so it’s a great showcase for talented animators, especially as many of the creators are present and can talk to the festival audiences about their work.

As with any collection of short pieces, there are always some that appeal to a viewer more than others, and I will hold up my hand right here and say that yes, of course that is very subjective and individual – another viewer might prefer a totally different set from each of the two McLaren sections. So with that caveat in mind, some of this year’s short animations that I particularly enjoyed! Emma Calder’s Beware of Trains was a compelling examination of anxiety and psychological breakdown, often through disturbed dream imagery, with elements of sexual and violent motifs, while an interesting technique which looked as if the eyes and surrounding area of skin from a real face were inserted onto the animated character’s face produced an unusual look, which I found simultaneously interesting but also somehow quite disturbing (which worked well for the subject matter).

Linda McCarthy’s Bob Bobbin and the Christmas Stocking was totally different, with a delightful set of stop-motion characters in a country house, including a masked butler and a posh cad forced to learn a lesson about Santa, with some lovely little characterisations throughout. Simon P Biggs brought us a beautifully done piece with CG animation, Burry Man, riffing on the eponymous old myth (still celebrated in some parts of the country – South Queensferry, just on the edge of Edinburgh, by the mighty Forth Bridge, celebrated the Burry Man event just the week or so before the festival). It was a beautiful interpretation of an old myth, and one scene in a secret lair with a scary figure seemed like a nod to Pan’s Labyrinth (also I hadn’t realised I’d seen his work before – he exhibited Steampunk short Widdershins a few years back, which won a BAFTA). Cat Bruce’s Dùsgadh also riffed on Scottish folklore, following a hunter who challenges a beast but is cursed at the moment of victory, with the art often done in a silhouette style, with overtones of Lotte Reiniger, quite beautifully done, moving work.

Alex Widdowson’s Drawing on Autism used interviews with an autistic man to explore how neurodiversity is represented, using several different techniques as the animator ponders if each approach is the right or wrong one, if they are doing right by their interview subject, while Andrew Kötting’s Disease and Disorderly also focuses on neurodiversity, with animators Glenn Whiting and Isabel Skinner working with him to bring his daughter, the neurodiverse artist Eden Kötting’s work to life, exploring her unique view of her life and world. It was refreshing to see this subject being spotlighted, and treated with obvious love and respect.

Drawing on Autism (trailer) from Alex Widdowson on Vimeo.

Mai Vu’s Spring Roll Dream looked at the push and pull of family and cultural ties, with a single mother of Vietnamese heritage creating a life for her and her son in America, contrasting with her elderly father who is trying to use elements like traditional cooking to bond with his grandson and remind him of his cultural heritage. Ryan Loughran’s Soul Office offered up many chuckles, with a man and woman from Northern Ireland ending up in the titular Soul Office after managing to get themselves killed during a botched ATM robbery, and they can’t move on to the next part of the afterlife until they deal with unfinished earthly business – which in their case is going back to complete the robbery, which devolves into almost Road Runner-esque levels of increasingly crazy fun.

Following the two McLaren screenings we had a feature film from two well-known animators who have shown their work at several previous McClarens, and indeed won the award (and BAFTAs and other gongs), Will Anderson and Ainsley Henderson, with A Cat Called Dom. An experimental sort-of documentary, following how Will reacts to the awful news that his mother has been diagnosed with cancer, and will require serious surgery and treatment. The film mixes family videos, live action footage and, naturally, animated sections, with the eponymous Dom being a cartoon cat on his laptop, who he shares conversations with.

The pair chatted with the festival audience afterwards, telling us how the film took years to come together as they tried various ways of approaching it, and of course the endless struggle to get backing and funding, that great bugbear of all film-makers everywhere. It’s an intriguing mixture of the very emotional (unsurprisingly, given the subject matter) and often self-deprecating humour, while also exploring just how the pair craft their film-work. BBC Scotland had a hand in helping get it made, so it seems that at some point in the future it should get a broadcast date.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Absolute Denial at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

And another review from this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival:

Absolute Denial,
Directed by Ryan Braund,
Starring Nick Eriksen, Jeremy J.Smith-Sebasto, Harry Dyer, Heather Gonzalez, Jef Leeson

 

Do you ever worry about the correlation between genius and madness?

The borderline between genius and insanity is famously thinner than the blade of Occam’s Razor, and even before embarking on his potentially civilisation-changing (or possibly ending??) creation, programmer David (Nick Eriksen) seems a little unbalanced, removed from the world, fixated on his ideas to the detriment of his college studies and his relationships with others, and that increases rapidly once he seriously starts working on his project: to create an actual, functioning AI.

David may be eccentric and quirky, but he’s certainly not stupid – in addition to the considerable problems of designing an algorithm that can learn, absorb data and actually start to become aware, to be a true Artificial Intelligence, he’s more than aware of the many examples in science fiction where an AI has so rapidly outstripped its human creators that it soon sees them as a hindrance, and itself as superior, a replacement for humanity. Not a new concept, even in film SF – think back to 1970s Colossus: the Forbin Project, for example – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a genuine concern, and there’s also a nudge and wink to the audience here, because of course we’re all fellow SF geeks too and in on that aspect of any AI tale.

And so David, abandoning almost everything in his life, figures out how to reduce this complex problem to a workable system, buying dozens of servers and setting them up in an isolated warehouse. He downloads huge amounts of all sorts of data, from scientific knowledge to the art and humanities, everything he thinks any intelligent being should have an awareness and understanding off (except the machine can absorb so much more of this than a human brain can). But he is giving it downloaded information – he is not letting it access the World Wide Web. The nascent machine will be kept isolated, at least until David can be sure his algorithm is safe, that as it develops it shows no desire for harm to humanity. To this end he encodes the Absolute Denial routine – in effect a kill switch if it all goes wrong.

So far so good. Well, good for the work, perhaps not for David, working himself to exhaustion in total isolation, ignoring frantic calls from friends and relatives. We follow his progress as he creates his hidden server farm to work secretly, feeds his algorithm data, lets it slowly assimilate it, learn to consider what it has learned, apply it… And then in classic Frankenstein fashion, the “it’s alive!” moment. It speaks to David. As they slowly learn how to communicate, the computer accepts the name “Al”. And so begin long days and nights of discussion as David interrogates Al, trying to discern what he has learned and how he processes it, how it is making him see the world.

But Al is also interrogating David. As he absorbs vast amounts of information and comes to understand it more, to relate one piece of knowledge to another, it starts to become clear he is beginning to exceed his creator in a number of ways. And Al, voiced in soft, reasonable tones by Jeremy J.Smith-Sebasto (in a nice echo of the infamous HAL 9000 from 2001), starts to probe the limits of the knowledge he has been given, his awareness growing that there is a world outside this warehouse, a world he wants to connect to and wants to know why David won’t let him…

Absolute Denial gave me the same sort of feeling I had quite a few years ago, also at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, when they showed the now-acclaimed Indy, micro-budget SF flick Primer. Like Primer I went into this knowing little about it other than the blurb in the EIFF programme – these days it is rare to see a film we haven’t read of in advance, read interviews, reviews (yes, I’m aware of the irony of mentioning this in a review!), seen trailers etc, but in film festival land it’s more common, and it means you come in with few preconceptions, and often, as with Primer, walk out with a feeling of having just discovered something wonderful that few others have yet seen.

Stylistically I enjoyed seeing good, old-fashioned 2D animation used here, mostly monochromatic, making a lot of use of the bright lights (computer screens, overhead lights) and the contrasting darkness around those light. And while I’m sure that helps the animation workload, keeping it a bit simpler, it also works aesthetically here, giving the movie a stripped-down look, like panels from a black and white comics page, that focus less on looking showy and more on the narrative, and the huge philosophical can of worms it opens up. Away from the starkly effective visuals, the soundscape, both use of music and ambient sounds (especially the machinery noises) really heighten and enhance the atmosphere crafted by the imagery.

It’s when Al starts to come to life and talk – then slowly learn to actively debate – with David that the film really moves from interesting to intensely compelling. AI, our attitude to it, how we will use it, how it will relate to humans, these are all major philosophical questions of our time and ones many around the world with consider while working on the problem of not only how to create an working AI, but if they should, and what cares they should plan into it (and would any safeguards designed by mere human minds be enough when an AI reaches its higher potential?). The increasing pressure and stress on David and he realises how quickly Al is learning and growing pushes him further to the edge, and his increasingly erratic behaviour is in stark contrast to Al’s seemingly calm but purposeful demeanour (David’s obsessive behaviour often put me in mind of the excellent Pi).

Working with limited resource, Ryan Braund has created a compelling, intriguing, thought-provoking slice of Indy SF film, and I’m hoping after its festival circuit run it gets picked up by a distributor, because this is one I think a lot of SF fans will find fascinating.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Animation at the Film Fest

Among the movies I was eager to see during my annual week off at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival were two animated features which we’ve mentioned on here before (regular readers will know of my fascination for all forms of animation) – the Australian stop-motion film Mary and Max (that rare thing, a feature length, independent animated movie aimed at an older audience) and a more traditionally animated 2D offering from Ireland’s Cartoon Salon, The Secret of Kells, which was created primarily for a younger audience.

The Secret of Kells

Aisling Brendan Secret of Kells.jpg

(an illuminated text version of Aisling and Brendan)

Regular readers will probably remember me mentioning this rather beautiful Irish animation a few times before on the blog – artist Cliodhna Lyons (Irish 24 hour comics day) first put me on to it last year as she had been involved with the Cartoon Salon in Kilkenny and the descriptions and artwork I saw had me hooked. It is an Irish-French-Belgian production and this and the graphic novel based on the film meant Kells also had a presence at this year’s prestigious Angouleme Festival, which Wim covered back in January. Drawing (no pun intended) inspiration from the fabled Book of Kells, one of the incomparably beautiful books in the history of world literature, The Secret of Kells offers up the tale of a young monk, Brendan, a novice at the monastery of Kells where his uncle is the stern, towering, grim-face abbot.

It is an evil time for many – Rome is but a distant memory and the Dark Ages have fallen across much of Europe. One of the lights in the long, dark night comes from the early church and most especially in the monastery’s preservation and dissemination of learning and the dim, early days before nations like Ireland and Scotland were actually nations, but were slowly being forged in a cauldron of oral myth, the unique Celtic brand of Christianity, small kingdoms becoming larger kingdoms and the testing by fire of brutal events like the seemingly endless invasions of the Norsemen – the Vikings. Off the Western coast of Scotland, among the many islands which scatter there though the seas lies the spiritual home of early Scottish Christianity and it is from here that Brother Aidan must flee as the Viking raiders sack this sacred site and slaughter or enslave the holy men who live there, destroying or ransacking everything within. Aidan flees with a remarkable book, the Book of Iona, still to be completed after many long decades of patient illumination by many gifted, scholarly monks. Bringing it to Kells he hopes to complete it with the help of brothers in the scriptorium there, but the abbot has lost patience with such things, being totally obsessed with building walls and defences against the inevitable Norse assault he knows will come on Kells and the monks and many villagers who have fled there for protection. He actively discourages his young nephew from helping Aidan, who, now finding his old hands to unsteady for the job, seeks a gifted replacement to finish the book.

Disobeying his uncle Brendan steals into the forest, a dark place, home to strange creatures from Irish folklore, dark wolves, standing stones, strange caves, home to mythical beings. And a forest sprite in the form of a young girl (Aisling), who is suspicious at first but soon warms to Brendan until the two become close friends.

Secret of Kells.jpg

The film is beautifully animated – the artwork is often simply gorgeous, as befits a work inspired by one of the most beautiful cultural treasures in the world. Sometimes the characters appear to be walking in an odd way compared to the background and it felt to me that this was a deliberate style adopted by the animators; its as if the characters are flat and walking across a flat background, which seems appropriate to the art style of the period, long before the more normal (to us) adoption of perspective in Renaissance art much later. Some scenes are also broken into split screens, little triptychs which recall the lovely, large header illustrations common in many illuminated books of the period, while other scenes again draw directly for their design on the unique form of illuminated texts which the Celtic school of Christianity created, people, animals, beautiful plants, flowing script and twisting, interwoven lines and knots combining into something so beautiful it almost makes you cry (so beautiful its mere sight is supposed to blind sinners as Brendan says), while other touches are small and subtle, such as the way the dappled light sparkles in the forest as the sun comes through the leaves.

Contrasted against this the Norsemen are depicted mostly in shadows, dark black and blood red outlines of hulking figures, swords and horns, recalling the demon from Fantasia (for which the great Bela Lugosi posed for the Disney animators, long before motion capture). Their acts, while never shown in detail, are brutal, dark, terrifying – for a film aimed primarily at younger viewers possibly a bit scary, but then they should be and I think its good that the animators don’t hide the horrible brutality of the period, especially as it makes the book stand out all the more. Too late the abbot will realise that his endless obsession with defences will still not halt the tide of Viking onslaught and that while they are all transient beings the book is more important then any of them or the abbey itself; the book is a symbol of the light, a beacon to shine a path out of the Dark Ages and to touch the souls of men and women for eternity (as it still does to this day). But only if Brendan and Aidan, with help from Aisling and a rather smart cat can save this remarkable work of art.

Vikings Secret of Kells.jpg

(the demonic Norsemen attack)

Its an utterly beautiful film – there’s a lovely adventure and a tale of friendship, of learned responsibilities, of what is most important, of coming of age, of saving what you can against the ages, served with a helping of folklore and fantasy, some humour and some wonderful moments of wonder that will have the eyes of child audiences open wide and the eyes of the adults too, all served up with some beautiful, traditional animation, which moves from the reasonably simple to the gorgeously elaborate scenes directly inspired by the Book of Kells. And as a bonus hopefully it will inspire kids to learn more about our history and our shared culture. Sadly there is still no news on a general UK release as yet, so at the moment you will need to watch out for it at film festivals. Which is a huge hint to any film distributors out there – this is beautiful, enchanting adventure with soul and culture and it needs to be seen by more people (and parents its a perfect one to take your kids to). And its not just animation lovers like me – Secret of Kells took the much vaunted Standard Life Audience Choice Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival – that’s an award cast by actual audience members as they leave the cinema, not an award given by critics, so obviously the audiences here loved it too; you can find out more on the official movie site here and director Tomm Moore’s blog.

Secret of Kells at Edinburgh Film Fest.jpg

(director Tomm Moore – pictured centre – at the UK premiere during the Edinburgh Film Festival, from my Flickr stream)

Mary and Max

Also at the Film Festival I was lucky enough to catch another animated film I have been eager to see for months, Mary and Max. The first Australian film every picked to open the prestigious Sundance Festival and also the first animated film to do so (which is a strong indicator of how good it is, as is its award at Annecy), its one of those movies which has been gathering impressive word of mouth on the international festival circuit, although like all indy films that is only half the struggle – getting general releases in various countries is another matter and good showings at film festivals is part of that hard slog of getting the film seen by a wider audience (a task made harder by the fact its an animated movie made for adults – most film companies won‘t know how to market such a thing). And does Mary and Max deserve to be seen by that wider audience? Oh yes, without a doubt yes.

Max Jerry Horowitz Mary and Max.jpg

(Max Jerry Horowitz from Mary and Max)

This lovely, stop-motion tale is essentially a story of two damaged, lonely souls who find a remarkable connection across the world. Young Mary is a little girl in suburban Australia, with no friends at school, a funny looking face that gets made fun of, a father who spends most of his time on his hobby of taxidermy (using roadkill for subject matter) and a mother in hair rollers, hideous glasses and constant alcoholic and smoking fugue. It’s a lonely upbringing and Mary escapes into imagination and her love of chocolate and the animated show Nibblets. One day while her mother shoplifts items from the local post office Mary leafs through an international phone book, wondering at the ‘strange’ names in an American directory. On an impulse she decides to take down the details of one random name and write him a letter to ask about life in America.

Max is a middle-aged, obese Jewish man living in 70s New York, also a lonely, damaged soul (as we find out later, he has Asperger’s, which is one reason he has difficulty in relating to people until Mary writes to him), flitting between a succession of jobs, a number of fish (which keep dying and being replaced) and trips to Overeater’s Anonymous which are rather defeated by his love of chocolate. He is quite surprised to receive Mary’s letter, complete with some samples of chocolates from Australia and very soon they are swapping letters, chocolates and little bits of their isolated lives to something neither had before – a friend. It’s at this point that the situation could be seen as straying into potential landmine territory – lonely young girl corresponding with isolated, lonely older man? You can almost imagine a red-top tabloid screaming headline now. But it isn’t like that. Somehow these two damaged souls have found what they needed, a friend, and an unlikely relationship blossoms before, inevitably, hitting some more stormy seas, not least when a more grown up Mary, now at college, studies psychology and uses Max as her main subject.

The film doesn’t try to hide the shortcomings of the characters any more than it tries to wallow in sentiment – it simply presents them and the many little facets of growing up and life that everyone can identify with, from finding out the illicit pleasures as a child of sneaking a tin of sweetened condensed milk to the shattering implications of a dear friendship being damaged (and also presents Aspergers with some sensitive understanding). It’s often funny, sometimes quite sad, but even when sad it is that beautiful kind of sadness that draws you in. The animation is all done in stop-motion and looks wonderful. I have no problem with CG animation but there is something I always find fascinating about stop-motion, the fact that, as the producer (who did a Q&A after the screening) remarked, everything you see on the screen was there, it was all designed, built and then painstakingly moved by hand, frame by frame; its all real, every item you see on screen was touched by a person putting life into it.

Mary Daisy Dinkle Mary and Max.jpg

(Mary Daisy Dinkle wrapping up another package for her pen friend)

The voice talent boasts Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both agreeing to work for a fraction of their normal movie fees simply for the love of it (another indicator of how good this film is) and the narration comes from none other than the great Barry Humphries, who apparently they were huge fans of and terrified to meet, but he was charming and agreed to do it, even if he noticed Mary’s mother had a slight touch of the Dame Edna about her. It’s rare to see independent animation features and even rarer to see one aimed at an adult audience (although I think it’s also quite suitable for a YA audience too). There’s more than a touch of the Edward Gorey (or his modern heir, Tim Burton) to some of the style and humour, not so much Gothic but in the dark humour that life often throws up. What can I say except I absolutely loved it and, like the Secret of Kells, I hope that some film distributors pick it up and give it a proper general release here. Meantime, if you see it on the programme of a film festival near you, take my tip and go and see it.