The Denver Film Society, located in the heart of Denver, Colorado, is known for its eclectic programming, special events, and range of mini film festivals throughout the year. Each year, during the high profile STARZ Denver Film Festival, there is a block of animated films the festival lovingly calls Close Encounters of the Animated Kind. Last weekend, Denver Film Society hosted its first fully animated, exclusively international mini-fest, also called Close Encounters. The festival featured many amazingly creative, breath-takingly beautiful, wildly entertaining, and thought provoking films from a wide range of countries presented in every conceivable medium. These are by no means our typical Disneyfied or Pixaresque idea of animation. The festival offers a new way to perceive animation and a myriad of different uses for the medium beyond just as children’s entertainment. Animation, it turns out, can be startlingly mature and profoundly artistic.
Rio 2096, A Story of Love and Fury (Brazil)
Not only is Rio 2096 a beautiful story about eternal love, but also a profound statement about fighting for what you believe in and learning from the past in order to move forward. It follows the struggles of a young warrior in Rio over the course of his 600 year life and the many incarnations of his true love Janaína. Together they fight tyranny in its many forms throughout Brazilian history, as well as in an imagined dystopian future.
The Apostle (Spain)
The Apostle is an atmospheric, darkly comedic, and mystical adventure that follows an escaped prisoner, Ramon, and his attempts to retrieve some hidden jewels from a strange village. However, the jewels quickly become secondary to Ramon’s survival and to discovering the mystery of the village’s sinister residents. With a score by Philip Glass, chilling scenery, a compelling story, and detailed stop-motion animation, this film is a joy to watch. You become so immersed in the story and in Ramon’s journey that you forget you’re not watching live action people on the screen.
Moon Man (France)
Moon Man is a charming and whimsical film about the joy of adventure and discovery, reveling in each other’s differences as well as similarities, and the true meaning of friendship. The Moon Man lives all alone on the Moon and grows lonely and bored as he watches over the children of earth. One day, a comet flies by and the Moon Man is able to hitch a ride to Earth where he frolics among the simple wonders of the planet and dances with the children. Meanwhile, he is mistaken for a dangerous invader and the President of the Earth attempts to capture Moon Man and take the Moon for himself. This film is simply delightful and will appeal to the child in everyone.
From Up On Poppy Hill (Japan)
This is another Studio Ghibli film (Spirited Away, Ponyo), but this time by Goro Miyazaki, the son of famed writer/director Hayao Miyazaki. The animation style is very similar to other Ghibli productions, but the difference here is a noted lack of fantastical elements in the story. Miyazaki Sr. often incorporates magical beings or events as an accepted part of the world of the film. From Up On Poppy Hill is distinctly realistic in its plot and storyline, but certainly does not lack in heart, joy, and humor. While the storyline is a bit melodramatic (boy and girl fall in love only to discover that they may be siblings), the film is completely aware of this and subtly lets the audience know it.
Tito On Ice (Germany)
This film is a documentary about the artists Max Andersson and Lars Sjunnesson as they tour ex-Yugoslavia and discover how culture has changed since the country’s fall. Tito is a mix of stop-motion animation (all animation made with 100% garbage!) and live action as the two travel further into a world of absurdities and surrealities, all the while accompanied by the mummy of Marshall Tito in a refrigerator. Unique, bizarre, informative, and entertaining, Tito On Ice will have you shaking your head in wonder and disbelief.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (Japan)
While certainly not a new film, Kiki’s Delivery Service was shown at the festival as part of a Phil Hartman tribute, and as such is an excellent showcase of his voice-over talents. The film was preceded by a Skype chat with Phil’s brother Paul Hartman and Groundlings alum John Parragon, Edie McClurg, and Lynne Marie Stewart, and moderated by Simpsons voice actor Maggie Roswell (in person), which was technically plagued but relatively entertaining. Try as they might to have an ordered and informative conversation, the Q&A took the tone of a bunch of old friends getting together and subsequently talking over each other. The film itself is an enchanting story about a young witch coming of age and finding her place in the world. Just Phil Hartman as wisecracking cat Jiji is worth sitting through the film, but add to that everything from the story to the animation and Kiki’s is a joy of a movie.
Sky Song (Estonia)
This claymation film is like some sort of Freudian nightmare turned existential journey – one part stark, discomfiting, and back alley clinical, one part dreamlike, nostalgic, and willful perseverance. It sounds like it doesn’t make sense, and that’s because for the most part it doesn’t. Much of the symbolism and connections are intuitive, the images in the first part so ingrained in the Freudian part of our psyche that it makes far too much sense for our own comfort. The surreal exercises and experiments in the first part of the film give way to a journey that partially explains the need for this training and the rigorous selection process, but still doesn’t explain the need for the journey in the first place, or the trials that one lonely messenger must go through in order to complete that journey. But then again, that sounds a lot like regular life in a way. In the end, we’re really just along for a ride, and where that ride might lead us is up to our own understanding of ourselves. Or maybe it really just doesn’t make sense.
Approved For Adoption (France)
A double rarity in the film world, and there were two of these at the festival: A documentary that’s part animation and part live action. This is the story of Jung (the artist of the film), an adopted Korean who grew up in Belgium and the struggle he had coming to terms with his heritage and his place among family, friends, his adopted country, and his country of birth. The story is told in short animated vignettes alternating with old home movie footage and specially filmed sequences with the artist exploring his native Korea. The result is a thought-provoking and moving portrait of a young man coming of age, trying to reconcile one family with another, one country with another, to form a whole person.
The Painting (France)
This is a whimsical and fantastical story about the residents of a painting and the levels of society that form within it. The upper class are the beautifully painted Allduns, the middle class the partially finished Halfies, and the lower “untouchables” the simple Sketchies. Naturally the upper class lives in a castle and oppresses the lower classes, and there’s a forbidden love story between an Alldun and a Halfie. A trio made up of one from each class goes on a journey to find The Painter in order to erase the differences between his creations. The result is a wild adventure of discovery, full of color and life, love and rebellion, and the realization that we are ultimately the product of our own design.
National Film Board of Canada Shorts (Canada)
This collection of shorts ranges impressively in style, subject matter, and medium, from stop-motion to CGI, from nonsense to addiction to cosmic origins. Ryan and Lipsett Diaries are particularly notable for using animation to explore the lives of other filmmakers, an influential animator in the first case and an experimental filmmaker in the second case. Lipsett Diaries is especially affecting, full of loud, jarring images and swirling colors which represent a number of tumultuous emotions and events. Other shorts include Sunday, a typical day through the eyes of a child, Madame Tutli-Putli, a suspenseful journey on the night train, The Danish Poet, how the birth of Liv Ullman depended on a very specific sequence of unlikely events, and Edmond Was a Donkey, how one man discovers he identifies as a donkey and increasingly alienates everyone around him because of his refusal to conform.