Still from The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, 2019, dir. Lorenzo Mattotti (© 2019 Prima Linea Productions)

In just its third year, the Animation First Festival — a three-day celebration of French animation hosted by the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) — has quickly become one of the essential New York City film festivals, and a must-attend for admirers of animation. This year’s festival, which features a mixture of screenings, workshops, exhibits, and talks, showcases the work of emerging filmmakers, all of whom build on the rich history of French animation that began over a century ago by the father of animation, Émile Cohl, and emphasize artistry over marketability and commercial success. The festival also pays homage to an individual who is among the central architects of that legacy, Jean-François Laguionie.

Laguionie, this year’s guest of honor, has been animating, producing, and directing shorts and features for over half a century. Known for his delicate hand-drawn style, his poetic and patient storytelling, and his blending of 2D and 3D animation, his features are a treat for animation fans seeking films with a classic look, enhanced by a touch of maturity and sophistication not found in the average animated feature.

In addition to discussing his career with an audience at the festival, Laguionie will be showing clips of his next feature, Slocum, in which a man looks back at his own life while reading the diaries of Joshua Slocum (the first person on record to circumnavigate the globe). The Laguionie films to be screened at the festival include a re-mastered version of his 1985 feature-length debut, Gwen, the Book of Sand; his 1976 Short Film Palme d’Or winner Rowing Across the Atlantic, as well as other shorts; and the US premiere of his 2019 feature, The Prince’s Voyage.

Still from The Prince’s Voyage, dir. Jean-François Laguionie, 2019 (© 2019 Blue Spirit Productions, Mélusine Productions)

A spiritual successor to his 2009 film A Monkey’s Tale, Voyage (co-directed by Xavier Picard) is a gentle delight. It takes place in a world of anthropomorphized monkeys and tells the story of Laurent, an adult prince in his native land who finds himself ashore in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by strangers who speak a language he doesn’t understand. Confused and weakened, he befriends Tom, the curious young boy who discovers him, understands his language, and keeps him company in a rundown museum while he regains his strength. The two bond as Tom guides the Prince through his part of the world, where nature threatens to engulf a city that has technology beyond the Prince’s wildest dreams. The Prince is enthralled by Tom’s society, which has the capability to reach above the trees, but remains weighted down by its classism and xenophobia.

Also screening is director Jérémy Clapin’s Academy Award-nominated feature I Lost My Body. The surreal urban fairytale of a disembodied hand that escapes from a laboratory and spends a night scurrying, climbing, and at one point gliding through urban Paris, all so that it can return to the body of a melancholic pizza delivery boy, was one of 2019’s major animated films. Winner of awards at Cannes, Annecy, and recently, the Annie Awards (Best Independent Feature), the film marks the arrival of Clapin. Its acquisition by Netflix is perhaps a sign of things to come in terms of animation distribution. Even for those who have already seen the film, the screening promises to be illuminating, as its editor, Benjamin Massoubre, will present a behind-the-scenes look at the making of this exquisite and acclaimed feature.

Other festival highlights include the US premiere of famed illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti’s debut feature, The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, which will open the festival, and Anca Damian’s Marona’s Fantastic Tale (2019).

Mattotti, whose work has graced the cover of Le Monde, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker, brings his masterful use of color and composition to feature-length animation for the first time, adapting the 1945 children’s book of the same name, written and illustrated by Bruno Buzzati. (A number of Mattotti’s covers will be on display at the FIAF’s Haskell Library in a month-long exhibition opening February 7.)

Still from Marona’s Fantastic Tale, dir. Anca Damian, 2019 (© 2019 Sacrebleu Productions)

Marona’s Fantastic Tale, an eye-catching feature that employs a wide variety of animation techniques to tell the story of a small Labrador and the many humans who have passed through the dog’s life, was another 2019 festival favorite — one that packs an emotional and visual punch. Written by the director’s son, the film, like its protagonist, is well-traveled, however this screening marks its New York debut. Damian will also be making an appearance, as part of an essential panel on the current state of women in the animation industry, and strategies for more equal gender representation in this wondrous medium. It’s but one of many reasons to make it to this year’s festival.

The FIAF Animation First Festival 2020 takes place at FIAF Manhattan’s Florence Gould Hall and Tinker Auditorium (FIAF, Level A, 55 East 59th Street, Manhattan), Skyroom (FIAF, 8th Floor, 22 East 60th Street, Manhattan), and Gallery (FIAF, 1st Floor, 22 East 60th Street, Manhattan) from February 7-10. Tickets are available at

Christopher Lee Inoa is a freelance reporter, and critic specializing in film and animation. His work has appeared on The Film Stage, Fandor, Birth.Movies.Death, Syfy Wire, and Polygon. He has a Masters...