As with so many other aspects of our daily lives, the Animation First film festival is going all digital this year. The fourth edition of the French Institute Alliance Française’s essential festival celebrating French animation promises a surplus of US premieres showcasing the country’s thriving animation scene, as well as a series paying tribute to one of its most accomplished creators, Paul Grimault

Still from The Lightning Bolt Thief (1944), dir. Paul Grimault (© Les Gémeaux)

Grimault’s status in French animation is second only to the father of the medium, Emile Cohl. Known for his lyrical, colorful, and surrealist style, Grimault was behind France’s first full-length  animated feature, his 1980 masterpiece The King and the Mockingbird, screening as part of the festival. A fantasy-adventure film that takes pleasure in satirizing authoritarianism, The King and the Mockingbird took almost 30 years to complete but possesses a timeless quality thanks to the magic of 2D animation. The film was a tremendous influence on two of the most important figures in contemporary animation, Studio Ghibli co-founders Hayao Miyazaki and the late Isao Takahatai. The duo studied the film frame-by-frame while working on Miyazaki’s lauded debut feature, The Castle of Cagliostro (1979),  the setting of which was inspired by Grimault’s beautifully abstract kingdom of Tachycardia. 

The festival will also screen eight of Grimault’s short films made between 1942 to 1973. The recently remastered collection — which includes the award-winning films The Lightning Bolt Thief (1944) and The Little Soldier (1947) — are perhaps the jewel of the festival this year, offering an opportunity for both long-time admirers and recent discoverers of Grimault to witness how his style and political messaging evolved over decades. 

Still from Calamity (2020), dir. Rémi Chayé (© Maybe Movies, Nørlum)

Opening the festival will be the US premiere of Rémi Chayé’s Calamity Jane (2020), the first full-length feature film based on the iconic frontierswoman born Martha Jane Cannary. Recipient of the Cristal Award at the 2020 Annecy Film Festival, Chayé’s second feature is a coming of age story that follows a rebellious young Jane as she  discovers herself while journeying along the Oregon trail, through treacherous forests, mining towns, and back. The film seems destined to become a children’s animated classic. Rarely has the American frontier looked as gorgeous as it does in Calamity Jane, thanks to the highly stylized and saturated visuals of Chayé and color designer Patrice Suau. Together, they make the Wild West more closely resemble the work of painter Brian Cook rather than John Ford.

Also making its US premiere is Josep (2020), a sensational and poignant introduction to the illustrator and political activist Josep Bartolí. Awarded Best Animated Film at this year’s Lumières Awards, Josep marks the feature-length debut of Le Monde illustrator Aurélien Froment a.k.a Aurel. Set shortly after the Spanish Civil War, the film focuses on Bartolí’s years inside a French internment camp, where he would strike up a friendship with a kind gendarme who notices his artistic talent. Provided with the tools he needs to draw, Bartolí documents the countless indignities he and his fellow Catalonians endure while seeking refuge from Franco’s fascist regime; as well as the few sparks of vibrancy that break through the misery. The director and screenwriter Jean-Louis Milesi, as well as Bartolí’s widow Bernice Broomberg, will participate in a talk about the film, which will surely provide more insight into Bartolí’s little-known but extraordinary life. 

Still from Josep, 2020, dir. Aurel, (© Les Films d’Ici Méditerranée)

The 2021 Animation First Festival streams  February 5-15 through the French Institute Alliance Française.

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...