Nathaniel R reporting from the Toronto International Film Festival
In the American landscape of animated features, barring extremely rare indies like Anomalisa, it's always safe to refer to animated films as "a genre" even though it technically isn't one. But you always know the type of film you're going to get. Some of them are magnificent, but even those play safely in-line with expectations: family friendly, cute and colorful, noisy/busy for short attention spans, funny. So long as you meet those four expectations you're allowed to color outside the lines of the actual governing genre (adventure/comedy) used by animation studios and draw from other genres like musicals, fantasy pictures, and horror so long as the horror is cute-grotesque (think Tim Burton's forays into the genre or all of Laika pictures).
For the forseeable future, though, we'll have to keep looking abroad for an understanding of animation as a film medium (what it actually is), capable of telling any type of story that might spring from any kind of genre. Festivals that program animated films are wise. They're often beautiful counterprogramming to more typical art fare. On the first day of the festival I caught two of them, both of which are aiming for Oscar love...
The Red Turtle (Michaël Dudok de Wit)
An odd coincidence: both of this year's most gorgeous toons begin with a massive storm on the ocean and a desperate figure washing up on an island (see also Kubo and the Two Strings). They diverge considerably thereafter but it's worth mentioning.
The Red Turtle, co-produced by Wild Bunch and Studio Ghibli, is a stunner, charting the whole life of the shipwrecked man (and much more besides) without any dialogue which should make it an easy international sell. It has only its imagery and music and inestimable beauty to work with and that's more than enough. There are telltale remnants of more mainstream animation in some delightfully funny sea crabs but mostly it's an art film with emphasis, literally, on art. Some of the sequences and scenic views are so breathtakingly illustrated that I may have taken the wrong message from it -- "I want to be stranded on a tropical island, too!"
The man's Sisyphean struggle to escape the island, building a raft which always meets the same fate in his battle with a red turtle, is unexpectedly moving rather than aggravating despite its looping repetitiveness. Once the magical titular beast enters the story, things shift considerably. It's all surely metaphorical but of what, exactly? Man's relationship to nature? Parenting? The circle of life? The Red Turtle is so generally free associative in its silences and mysteriously matter-of-fact turns that maybe it's not the most rigorous of metaphors. Minor reservations about its vagueness aside, I mean this with all sincerity: it's one of the most visually beautiful motion pictures you will ever see. This isn't eye candy but a seven course meal for your eyes. If I can extrapolate from my own art education, this will surely be a favorite among artists and animators; the movie is so rich with texture, pattern, and subtle color effects and gradations that you're not just seeing a drawing move but running your hands over the imaginary paper the living images are flickering over. Magic.
Oscar Dreams: Most definitely. Sony Pictures Classic is releasing it. Given the field this year a nomination in Best Animated Feature appears to be likely. A win wouldn't even be unimaginable if they can raise its profile enough.
My Life as a Courgette (Claude Barras)
Remember that heartbreaking children's story from Short Term 12 when a friendly octopus keeps giving up its limbs? My Life as a Courgette works similarly agonizing emotional terrain. No one wants children to be subjected to shockingly adult-size pain and horror but real life can be cruel, even to children. It's a bit of a shock to see this reality confronted by a cute stop-motion cartoon. You know you're watching a foreign animated film when you open with a scene of a lonely boy using his mother's vast supply of empty-beer cans as his personal LEGO set. And then you realize that's not going to be even remotely the saddest image in the movie. Tears!
Tragedy strikes little Courgette early and a kindly policeman helps him get settled into an orphanage where he meets other similarly damaged children, each with their own sad story of abandonment or abuse. The film is only 66 minutes long which is a kindness because how much sadness can you take...even when it comes in a cute package. (It's hard to imagine US moviegoing parents being able to acclimate to the movie's very European frankness about childhood)
Despite the movie's bruised heart the film is often sweet and funny, and the obvious affection for the orphans and their caretakers shines through. The movie's most effective element may well be the unique and consistent character design. The characters move in endearing ways (the kindly policeman's aggravation with being pranked by the orphans is a continual source of comic relief), and the gestures are easily understood emotionally. Every character's eyes are circled with a different color fading into their skin tone and the association is not unlike a black eye, a subtle reminder of how rough these lives have been. Thankfully the film finds room for lighter emotions, too, with a reminder that not all tears are created equally.
Sometimes people cry when they're happy.
Please Note: The American title (already on posters) My Life as a Zucchini is a shame because even though that's a valid translation, "Courgette" is our hero's preferred name and you hear it spoken constantly throughout the movie. So it's rather like changing the title of Amélie to Emily or something when releasing it in English markets-- Not necessary! (I think even children would catch that courgette is some kind of food and not a real name but a nickname. But perhaps when they dub it with celebrity voices (sigh) he'll just a new vegetable name in each language.
Oscar Dreams: It's already Oscar eligible in Best Foreign Language Film as Switzerland's official submission. GKids won't be releasing it until 2017 but they plan an Oscar qualifying release for Animated Feature eligibility