I love film festivals and I’ve given them many hours as a volunteer, audience member, journalist, and sometimes even filmmaker, but I’d be lying if I said that the London BFI Festival & I started out on the best of terms. I had visited it just once before, when I randomly picked a screening and ended up watching a terrible, terrible film made by David Cronenberg’s son, which convinced me once more, if there was any need for it, that talent is not hereditary. This year, interested in the animation selection, I attempted to get a press pass; my application was rejected, so, taking no offense, I bought (at sky-high prices) tickets to a few screenings. A week later, when press screenings had already started, the festival emailed me to explain how I can pay my accreditation fee. Say what? I was told that the initial rejection was a mistake, but I was offered no compensation, and I got the impression that the BFI Festival is not exactly very friendly.
This doesn’t take away from the shine of the festival’s line-up, which included award winners from Toronto and Cannes, rumored future Oscar winners and other hype generators, fresh British productions, first features, work from beloved mainstream and indie directors, world cinema, documentaries, old masterpieces, anyway, anything that the heart of a film fan may desire, in and out of competition- plus red carpet appearances from international celebrities. I, however, went there for cartoons, and that’s precisely I got.
Moomins on the Riviera, directed by Xavier Picard, France/Finland
The characters of this film come from a much-loved series of books and comics by Tove Jansson, which was also turned into a TV series. For those of you who don’t know them, the Moomins are chubby creatures reminiscent of hippos, who live in peace and harmony in Moomin Valley with an assorted cast of other quirky, adorable creatures. Many old, beloved series have been turned by Hollywood into shrill, tasteless CGI films (I’m looking at you, Smurfs), but fortunately this is not the case with the Moomins. The spirit of their universe was well preserved in Xavier Picard’s film, not only in its visual style, which has kept the stylised design of the characters and resembles Tove Jansson’s illustrations, but also in terms of pacing and tone. There is no standard movie structure or climax in this film, nor there is any forced „modernisation” of the Moomins.
The pretext of the story is a trip taken by the Moomin family to a luxury seaside resort, but „Moomins on the Riviera” is more like a series of sketches and jokes rather than a grand movie epic. It’s hard to pin down the charm of the Moomins in words, but we could say that their adventures have a certain philosophical tone that adults can pick up on, while staying simple and innocent enough to be liked by children. Seated next to me was a big fan of the series, who absolutely loved the film, but I had objections, too. I was particularly bothered by the stereotypes abundant in the sub-plot of a couple made of an overly jealous guy and a shallow, ditzy girl who is quickly blinded by the shine of money. It’s not like pop culture isn’t already full of this sort of thing, maybe we could at least spare the kids, while they’re young, from the idea that men must guard their women or some rich guy will come steal them away.
I did have a smile on my face throughout most of the film, though, and the rest of the audience seemed to be in the same situation. There were, of course, a lot of families with children present, but also child-free audience members, including a couple of girls younger than I, who were bragging about having made their flatmate jealous with their Moomin film tickets. The screening sold out very quickly. And here is living proof that you don’t need to do that much to please the fans of a popular series, regardless of their age: you just have to be willing to place confidence into the source material.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
The Satellite Girl and the Milk Cow, directed by Chang Hyung-Yun, South Korea
I was not a witness to the writing process for this Korean anime, but if I had to imagine it, I think it went something like this: the screenwriter opened a dictionary at random a few times, wrote the words he saw first on the page on pieces of paper, put the papers in a hat and then, without looking, he chose a few words which he then had to use in full sentences. This is the only explanation I can find for the events in this story, where a talking milk cow is chased by a giant stove and by a guy with a toilet plunger, and then the day is saved by a space satellite and a toilet paper roll- and all of this only in the first five minutes.
Once you get used to all the weirdness, though, you start to notice that „Satellite Girl…” is in fact a fairly conventional and sentimental romance: a young musician is looking for the love of his life and doesn’t notice that she is right under his nose, an eccentric girl who fell in love with his music. Well, in this case, the guy was turned by heartbreak into a milk cow, and the strange girl is in fact a space satellite. Details, details, all love stories are alike- by the way, why wasn’t this film in the „Love” section, instead of „Family”?
The animation is a bit stiff, to be honest, the romance a bit maudlin, and the fantasy aspects of the puzzle don’t fit together all that well, but I still found the film rather sweet and I’d recommend it, if only for its relentless weirdness. My mouth was agape as I was staring in wonder at this display of the filmmakers’ surreal imagination. How many romance films have you seen where the protagonist can say „I’m a milk cow, she’s a space satellite- it could never work”? How many movie wizards have you seen that are also toilet paper rolls? And so on, and so forth.
My rating: 2 and a half stars out of five
Song of the Sea, directed by Tomm Moore, Ireland
As far as I’m concerned, the main event of the BFI festival was the European premiere of Tomm Moore’s „Song of the Sea”: I’ve been waiting for it for a long time now! (Across the road from the cinema where it was showing, though, I could see the main event for most of the other festival-goers: „Fury”, starring Brad Pitt. Brad was there, too, amongst other celebrities, and Leicester Square was full of people hoping to catch a glimpse of the red carpet glamour).
Tomm Moore and the rest of his team from the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon had also brought us „The Secret of Kells”, nominated for an Academy Award in 2010. Just like „Kells”, „Song of the Sea” looks amazing. You’d need someone more knowledgeable in art theory tto properly describe to you the graphic style of the film, I can only say that it is very, very beautiful, magically so. „Song of the Sea” is a lot stronger than „Kells” script-and-character-wise, though. The year is not yet over, but I think I’ve already found my favourite animation of 2014. Unfortunately I have no idea when and where else it will run, but if you hear of a showing near you, I strongly recommend you go see it.
Another thing in common with „The Secret of Kells” is the Irish folklore inspiration- this time, it’s the myth of selkies, seal-women who inevitably return to the sea, leaving their terrestrial husbands behind. In „Song of the Sea”, a little boy named Ben discovers that his baby sisters Saoirse is half-selkie and that the awakening of her magical powers, which she inherited from their selkie mother, is vital for every other fairytale creature in Ireland.
In an interview that I’ve read, Tomm Moore had mentioned Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki as one of his influences. I’m already wary of comparing everything to Studio Ghibli movies, but in this case, the influence is indeed obvious: apart from Miyazaki’s films, I can’t remember seeing another animation which awakened my interest and enthusiasm for a foreign country’s folklore to such a degree. Also like a Miyazaki film, „Song of the Sea” has no clear-cut villains (and the design and animation of its owl-witch reminds me of Yubaba from „Spirited Away”). All of this would have been in vain, though, had the film not managed to make me care deeply about the characters.
My rating: four out of five stars
The BFI Festival took place between 8 and 19 October and brought hundreds of films to 17 London venues. The „Family” line-up included another anime (the Japanese WWII drama „Giovanni’s Island”), „Yellowbird”, a CGI film of which I know close to nothing, an anniversary screening of Halas and Batchelor’s 1954 „Animal Farm” and a selection of short films, but my budget and my interest settled on the films I’ve reviewed above.
The grand prize of the festival’s competition was won by the Russian film „Leviathan”, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. (The full list of winners can be found here)