The idea of a film festival that specializes in animated films is something I think a lot of people could get behind. It seems like more animation studios open up locally every day, and there’s certainly enough enthusiasts of the animated arts around that they alone should make the idea a no-brainer.
Though I didn’t get to spend as much time as I wanted to at Le Miaff, the Montreal International Animation Film Festival, what I saw both in terms of content and organization impressed me, and really the only major disappointment of the weekend was the number of empty seats I saw in screenings. It’s my hope that this will change in future years, and that Le Miaff will only grow in scale and attendance.
In the mean time, the fest’s second iteration showcased a lot of great films and shorts, so let’s take a look at what you missed.
Like you see in a lot of other fests, feature screenings at MIAFF were often preceded by a short film, and one of the highlights both of the shorts selection and the fest as a whole was Fraser Munden and Neil Rathbone’s award-winning short The Chaperone.
The true story of a school dance that erupted into a full-on brawl, The Chaperone is one of those films for which the words “dizzying” and “kaleidoscope” can be aptly applied. To say nothing of “fun”, “awesome” and “kickass.” The short is a mixture of styles, telling the story of a violent confrontation between teachers and a gang of unruly bikers in rotoscope animation, live action, puppetry and even a little stop motion for flavor.
The film is in many ways a tribute to how much creativity, variety and flare you can cram into ten minutes or so, and there’s a pure joy for the medium on display that is honestly rare to see. A lot of the other shorts I saw were so dead-set on being thought-provoking and artful, The Chaperone‘s sense of joy and playfulness with not just storytelling but the very mediums it was working with was refreshing in the extreme. I spent the entire screening with a smile on my face and led the applause when it was over, that that really says it all.
108 Demon Kings
While most of the films at MIAFF were either dramatic or comedic in nature, 108 Demon Kings stood out as really the only action-adventure film, which is what drew me in. Don’t get me wrong, laughs and human drama are always good, but sometimes you just want to watch one dudes kicking each other in the head for an hour and a half.
In the tradition of classic Shaw Bros martial arts dramas, 108 Demon Kings is a kung-fu epic set in ancient China that tells the story of a plot to seize power, thwarted by a band of outlaws each sporting their own unique weapons and fighting styles. Plot wise, it delivers pretty much everything you’d want, action, comedy, and kung-fu treachery in generous proportions.
The problem, however, is the animation. 108 Demon Kings is a mix of 2D, 3D and live action, with environments mostly made up of cell-animated drawings, with characters brought to life by actors in full costume, with their heads and faces replaced with CGI animations. And. It’s. CREEPY.
There’s something deeply unnerving about a stylized CGI head on what is clearly a normal human body, in an uncanny valley kind of way. Oftentimes the movements of the actors will seem disconnected from what their faces are doing. Add in some not-amazing dubbing, and it often feels like the characters heads are on one page, their bodies on another, and their voices in another library two towns over. I don’t know why the creators of the film chose this particular style, but it drags the whole movie down and makes for an experience that was often more distracting and unsettling than it should have been.
Le Miaff’s programming schedule boasted films from all corners of the globe, with Joe Chang’s Magic Train coming out of China. The film is really a collection of shorts, told around a loose framing story of a young girl on a train bound for who-knows-where.
Like The Chaperone, Magic Train is an eclectic mix of styles and moods. One minute things can be cell-animated and deadly serious, the next it can be CGI and much more playful, and it’s really this variety that works best for Magic Train. It serves mostly as a showcase for the scope and variety of Chinese animation, that it isn’t really a genre in and of itself like anime, but rather that it can play to a whole score of different tempos and styles.
The downside to that is that not all of the shorts in the film are great, and there are definite high and low points. But then that’s usually the case in anthology films. But I’m pleased to say that Magic Train is contains more high than low, and will probably get you interested in Chinese animated films enough that you’ll start searching for more.
Tarzoon: Shame of the Jungle
Very few film festivals go without at least one controversial entry, and Tarzoon is about intent on creating controversy as any film I’ve ever seen. A relic of 60s animation, Tarzoon is an early example of adult animation, though I’m not sure “adult” is the word I’d use for it. The film is in many ways one long, drawn out dick joke. Not even a joke, really, just a series of reminders that dicks are a thing that exist. The humor on display is about as low-brow as one can imagine, and absolutely not everyone’s cup of tea. Myself included, if we’re being honest.
I think Tarzoon functions best as a relic more than a film. It’s a record of the comedic stylings of 1960s France and Belgium, a kind of museum piece that demonstrates what low brow cartooning was before Mad Magazine and Family Guy. In that, it’s a success, and an interesting thing to see. But view at your own risk.