Virus Tropical (Animation Is Film Festival)

Over the course of the nearly ten years since its founding, indie film company GKIDS has carved out an increasingly strong niche for itself as a distributor of foreign animated films. While animating tools are more accessible than ever, driving a blossoming movement of independent cartoonists, feature animation in the United States remains constrained by studio concerns about marketability, corporate synergy, and safe storytelling. In this environment, GKIDS provides a welcome showcase for the artistic possibilities filmmakers in other countries are exploring.

Now, the distributor has teamed with the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, ASIFA Hollywood, and Variety to present the first Animation is Film Festival in Los Angeles. Over the course of one weekend, the festival will showcase a mélange of animated work: features and shorts, classic and contemporary, foreign and domestic. While nearly all the films in the program are intriguing, here are some of the highlights.

Masaaki Yuasa Features

In terms of craft, Japanese animation has traditionally been separated from Western animation by its favoring of detail over movement. Western cartoons are associated with lots of action and simpler artwork and design, while anime is associated with more subdued movement and complex drawing. Masaaki Yuasa embraces both. His work is distinctive for its intricate motion, often featuring characters running at hyper-fast speeds and with surrealistic exaggeration. He’s also willing to experiment with shifting drawing styles within one work, a sensibility reflected in his anarchic, anything-goes approach to storytelling.

Yuasa has three films playing the festival, each of which displays a radically different vision. His two new features are a romantic comedy, Night is Short, Walk on Girl, and a children’s fantasy adventure, Lu Over the Wall. And then there’s 2004’s Mind Game, a sense-bending odyssey which switches genre every ten minutes. Animators and fans acclaimed the film, but it never saw a theatrical run or home video release in the U.S.; it will finally be distributed by GKIDS next year.

The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner (Animation Is Film Festival)

Irish studio Cartoon Saloon won plaudits for their features The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, both of which seemed to take place within 2D, tapestry-like spaces. The Breadwinner transplants that aesthetic to Taliban-controlled Kabul. Nora Twomey, who co-directed Kells and the studio’s 2002 short From Darkness, applies the fabulist tone she’s honed to a more realism-based tale, about a young girl who disguises herself as a boy to work and support her family.

Virus Tropical

Director Santiago Caicedo has turned Colombian-Ecuadorian artist Power Paola’s graphic-novel memoir into a film (it’s one of several comic book adaptations playing the festival). Caicedo turns Paola’s drawings into cutout puppets, applying cartoonish flair to its down-to-earth life story. This is exemplified in the movie’s opening, an explicit depiction of the main character’s conception and birth. From the get-go, it treats the messiest bits of life without kid gloves.

Songs of Love and Death

One of the festival’s stated goals is to “champion and support women filmmakers.” This is perhaps best showcased by this program, consisting of shorts directed by women. Representing a wide swath of countries and media (from traditional animation to stop-motion to cutout animation), these shorts spotlight some of the most vibrant independent animators currently at work.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (Animation Is Film Festival)

This is the first film from Studio Ponoc, formed by several former animators from Japan’s revered Studio Ghibli. Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who directed The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There for Ghibli, helmed this fantasy story. With Ghibli’s hiatus from filmmaking serving as a cause for mourning for animation fans the world over, Ponoc now seems to be trying to fill its place. (Just compare the film’s artistic style to any of Ghibli’s recent output.) Whether Mary and the Witch’s Flower lives up to the best of Ghibli or not, it’s earned raves so far and is unquestionably gorgeous to behold.

The Animation is Film Festival takes place October 20-22 at the TCL Chinese Theatre Multiplex in Hollywood, Los Angeles.

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here.