Titles include 'The Breadwinner' and 'Mary and the Witch's Flower.'
Indie distributor GKIDS has caught the attention of Hollywood, earning a remarkable nine best animated feature Oscar nominations since 2009, second only to Disney/Pixar. This year, it submitted seven movies for Academy Awards consideration. Here’s a look at them.
The Breadwinner, directed by Nora Twomey of Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon (Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) and exec produced by Angelina Jolie, has already won a slew of accolades. That includes the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for best animated feature, a Golden Globe nomination and ten Annie Award nominations including best independent animated feature and best director.
Based on the award-winning young adult novel of the same name by Deborah Ellis, the acclaimed animated film follows an 11 year old girl who lives under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan during 2001.
The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales is a farm-set comedy helmed by Benjamin Renner, who co-directed 2012 Oscar nominated animated feature Ernest & Celestine, and Patrick Imbert, animation director of Ernest & Celestine.
Their new film is comprised of several short stories set on a farm, including stories about a fox who mothers a family of chicks, a rabbit who plays the stork, and a duck who wants to be Santa Claus.
The look is a mix of digital and hand drawn techniques. “There’s some watercolor in the background, but it's not really painted. The artists did watercolor texture and scanned them, so in the computer they can mix their drawings and the look of the watercolors," Imbert explains.
The Big Bad Fox is the first feature from Oscar-nominated Ernest & Celestine producer Didier Brunner’s production company Folivari. This film won a Special Jury Prize at the inaugural Animation is Film Festival, which was held in Los Angeles during October.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower, directed by Academy Award-nominee Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Studio Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There), is the inaugural feature from Japan-based Studio Ponoc, started by alums from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli.
"At the end 2104 Studio Ghibli closed its production division and we founded a new studio. When Marnie Was There was the final film before they closed the division, and it was a very quiet film. In founding this new studio, I thought it would be great to have an energetic, action-filled film to start off,” the director explains, noting that they chose to go with a fantasy based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stuart, “which had depictions of speedy action. It also had depictions of beautiful nature and the English countryside.”
Following a young girl named Mary who finds a flower that gives her magical powers, the film opens with a fast action sequence that “was our statement as the new studio Ponoc” that we were “going to action-packed films.” As she goes on her adventure--which includes a visit to a magical school (that J.K. Rolwing fans will now doubt find reminiscent of Harry Potter) she gains self confidence and becomes stronger. Yonebayashi reflected this in Mary's design, with curly red hair that she dislikes at the start of the film, while "in the fantasy world, her complex is reversed. That was one way I showed her growth and development."
The director relates that the production design involved a research trip to England, from which he based his "location scenes" of the countryside. "In the contrast, the fantasy world has a garden with artificial things growing, the colors are very exotic and weird," he says, adding that inspirations on the look of the college included Barcelona Cathedral.
The English language dubbed version is led by the voices of Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent.
The Girl Without Hands, the feature debut from Sébastien Laudenbach, is a hand-painted retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. In the story, a miller sells his daughter to the devil. But protected by her purity, she escapes from the devil who in his anger takes her hands. It was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the César Awards, and won the Jury Prize at the 2016 Annecy Animation Festival.
Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (Psiconautas, los niños olvidados), is a hand-drawn Goya Award winner for best animated feature, directed by Alberto Vázquez and Pedro Rivero and based on Vázquez’s graphic novel and short film, Birdboy.
In this dystopian fantasy featuring anthropomorphic critters, Dinky and her friends are stranded on an island in a post-apocalyptic world as they plan an escape in the hope of finding a better life. Her old friend Birdboy has his own demons, and with “an unexpressive face, we can put our own faces into Birdboy,” says Vasquez.
“The story is a metaphor about adolescence, in which our characters are looking to escape from a world that has been destroyed by pollution.”
Written and directed by cartoonist Dash Shaw, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea could be loosely described as a John Hughes movie meets Titanic. The film follows a sophomore named Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) whose high school, built on a fault line, slips into the sea and begins to sink. Dash and his best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts); friend Verti (Maya Rudolph); Mary, a popular know-it-all (Lena Dunham); and a lunch lady (Susan Sarandon) team up to race floor by floor (or level by level, in a reference to video games) to the highest point to try to save themselves as the school fills with water. Along the way, the movie weaves in stories about high school themes like friendships, cliques and young love.
The feature started as a comedic short. "The initial impetus was that when I was a teenager in the ‘90s, the majority of alternative comics were autobio comics. And the joke of this comic was that it was someone who had the same name as the creator, and their world has clearly been distorted to favor their perspective — that they would be a hero in a boy’s adventure story," Shaw explains.
The mixed-media animation style incorporates drawings, painting and collage.
Writer/director Kenji Kamiyama’s fantasy Napping Princess is set in the year 2020, three days before the opening of the Tokyo Olympics. Its strong-willed female protagonist, Kokone Morikawa, is focused on school until her father, a talented mechanic, is kidnapped for stealing technology from a powerful corporation and puts in motion the events in the story.
“Generally, in my own artistic works, I tend to incorporate realistic circumstances and events. If I were to say why, in animation, a world where everything is painted, I think that I want to preserve some sense of reality,” says Kamiyama.“This time, I thought that I wanted to include the issues we think about in Japan today, like the Tokyo Olympics, self-driving cars, and the disparity and disconnection between generations."
“At the time of the 1964 Japan Olympic opportunity, the manufacturing and automobile industry developed and enriched the country greatly. However, from the start of the 21st century, the old way of finding success became obsolete, Japan was stagnating and straying from its old ways, and we question where we should be going,” Kamiyama continues. “How do the elderly and young people both experience the same Olympics and automobiles? They clearly have two very different perspectives, but the Olympics and automobiles evoke certain qualities that may be able to unify those differing perspectives. The reason I tried to use these two issues was to ask through the film if these problems and questions could be solved."
"I intend for people to see the message that when there is communication between the younger and older generations, society will become richer," the director adds.