With its many repertory and alternative movie theaters, (not to mention Lincoln Center’s autumn cinematic extravaganza), New York is a year-round film festival. Late winter’s best-known movie blow-out is the New York International Children’s Film Festival, but there’s another cold-weather NYC festival devoted strictly to animation that’s definitely worth catching.
February 7-10 saw the third iteration of FIAF’s (“French Institute/Alliance Française”) “Animation First” festival of French animation. With all the attention on American big-ticket animated features, and anime’s ongoing popularity, it’s easy to forget that other countries also have an indigenous animation community. (Then again, France owns the honor of birthing Georges Méliès, if not an animator, the movies’ first fantasist.)
The Festival’s Guest of Honor was Jean-François Laguionie, whose animation career goes back to 1952. (In 1965 Laguionie won Annecy’s grand prize for his short the Young Lady and the Cellist.) His newest feature, 2019’s The Prince’s Voyage (Le Voyage du Prince) enjoyed its U.S. premiere at the festival. A follow-up to his 1999 feature A Monkey’s Tale (Le Château des Singes), Voyage is set in an-all simian world where an older monkey washes up on a foreign shore where the inhabitants believe themselves the only civilized species, “Simian sapiens.” He soon learns a relentless forest is encroaching on their city (our planet should be so lucky!) while its science-driven rulers see him only as a threat. (Or as he muses, “fear—they rule by it.”) He escapes to “The Canopy”—the forest’s treetops where a civilization of monkeys living in harmony with nature use the sun, wind and water (“gravity helps too”) to power their society. And the “civilized,” scientific monkeys below? “Once they’ve evolved, we’ll re-establish contact…we watch them to amuse ourselves.”
The festival presented New Yorker cover artist Lorenzo Mattotti’s first feature, The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily. Based on a 1945 children’s book, Bears followed a sleuth of bears invading civilization in search of their leader’s kidnapped son. The film’s vivid palette—no midtones, only solid colors contrasting with adjoining ones—as well as its repeated use of identical visual elements aligned in perspective, gave the film a unique look. (The sight of hundreds of bears dancing after their victory over the humans is a delight to behold.) For those who remember their art history classes there’s a shot halfway through of a young woman dashing through a courtyard that Mattotti admitted was a hat-tip to Italian surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico.
The festival included several works-in-progress programs, my favorite of which was Brazen. Based on the award-winning French graphic novel Les Culottées, the creators’ presentation featured several of the project’s sharp-humored vignettes of women unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom, each ending with her “mantra.” (For Margaret Hamilton, who stopped competing with conventionally attractive actresses to become The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West, it was “embrace your singularity.”) The producers’ detailed slide show diagramming the process of conceptualizing, designing, and animating the vignettes could in itself serve as a master-class course in animation production.
Just as in previous years, a corner of the exhibition was devoted to virtual reality, with an array of computers providing glimpses into the immersive 3D worlds the technology makes possible. Sponsored by the New York Institute of Technology (animators of French VR projects) one could don a headset and view in rapid succession origami animals around an origami campfire, a not particularly attractive in-your-face ET, and watch a T-rex walk towards, over and (if you turn your head 180 degrees to follow it) away. Art lovers could immerse themselves in animated, three-dimensional recreations of Rosseau and Gauguin paintings, while another computer featured “Gloomy Eyes,” an animation juxtaposing cute Nightmare Before Christmas-style characters with three-dimensional post-apocalyptic landscapes.
There was of course much more to enjoy at the event: features from other French animators (including Jérémy Clapin’s Oscar-nominated I Lost My Body) and shorts programs featuring student works, Annecy festival highlights and César (France’s version of the Oscar)-nominated animated shorts.
The only downside to FIAF’s 2020 Animation First Festival: it’s over. New York City animation fans will have to wait until February 2021 to once again enjoy the best of French animation.