by William J. Hammon, ActuallyPaid.com
The animation program at the Brooklyn Film Festival is one of the most fun events I get to cover, because you never know exactly what you’re going to get. Hundreds of talented artists put their various skills to the test, going beyond the physical limits of live action to tell stories in never before seen ways. The possibilities are absolutely endless.
This year, the festival has decided to divide the program into two sessions, one focusing on comedy and the other on drama and fantasy. This is a good idea, I think, because it prevents thematic whiplash for the viewer. The beauty of animation is its unfettered potential, so the last thing you want is for the experience to be potentially marred by a jarring juxtaposition in tone from one entry to the next.
Twenty-three films are entered this year, and all of them bring something new, unique, beautiful, and insightful to the table. Here are my top three from each session, though there are no entries in this field that wouldn’t qualify as truly excellent!
My Year of Dick
Based on the memoir by Pamela Ribon, this four-part series is an amazing sex-positive look at the maelstrom that is teenage hormones, not to mention a fun time capsule. Through the summer and fall of 1991, Pamela is on a quest to lose her virginity, winding her way through both gross, selfish boys and the absolutely comical lack of proper guidance from her family.
In each of the four segments, the light-colored, semi-rotoscoped, pencil sketch motif is interlaced with varying forms of animation art styles, from gothic to anime, giving all of Pamela’s misadventures a distinct identity and endearing quality, to say nothing of the earnestness of the character and her friends. Each style corresponds to the personality of her momentary paramour in a unique and creative touch.
There’s a heartfelt realism to the story, one we don’t often see, at least not from a female perspective. There are countless films about teenage boys and their mission to turn in their proverbial V-card, but it’s genuinely refreshing to see a young woman deal with these same awkward and clumsy moments.
Thou Shalt Dance
This might be, from an artistic standpoint, my favorite of the bunch. A “careful what you wish for” cautionary tale, Thou Shalt Dance presents a literal dance with the devil when a put-upon man reaches his limit with the inconsiderate people living in his apartment building, constructing a living demon to scare them away, or worse.
Dialogue free and composed in black and white, the film combines 2D and 3D elements in a brilliant display of compositing and layering. The man and the other human residents of the building are all 3D stop-motion puppets, each relatively faceless and looking like they were crudely carved out of wood, moving in very rigid patterns. They are set against much more cartoonish 2D cel shaded environments in lovely shades of gray, brought to life by highly animated animals, as well as the makeshift demon itself as a scribbled chalk outline. The contrast is tremendous.
What would happen if a Corgi became a dictator? It’s a question on all of our minds, I’m sure. Well, Barking Orders posits an insane answer in this two-minute laugh riot romp. After the entire British Royal Family is killed in a freak accident, their lovely little doggie is somehow the only surviving member of the family, and thus he assumes the throne, comically ruling with an iron fist, er, paw.
This is the most traditional piece of animation in the comedy block, as it’s standard 3D CGI and is little more than an exercise in Monty Python levels of silliness. But that’s honestly the charm, along with the expert design on the dog. And while the main story turns just about every idea on its ear in the short runtime, the most clever of the bunch might be the palace guard showing the widest range of emotion, despite their reputation as stoic, unmovable statues of discipline.
There are much more introspective, artistic works in both the Comedy and the Drama & Fantasy programs, but none elicited such a cathartic guttural laugh from me. Sometimes, that’s all a cartoon needs to do.
The Grave of Saint Oran
Narrated by the great Neil Gaiman and based on one of his stories, The Grave of Saint Oran is a wonderful bit of religious horror animated with layers of colored paper in a haunting bit of stop-motion. The film recounts the legend of Oran of Iona, a Catholic martyr whose burial site is believed to be the foundation of a chapel on the Scottish island.
The story of betrayal, faith, and challenge to dogma is thoughtful and poignant. Is there salvation in one saint killing another? Where do we get our preconceptions about God and the afterlife? How would we react if a clergyman were to rise from the dead and tell us that everything we think we know is wrong? And how could that possibly be reassuring? The philosophical questions resonate thanks to the high quality of the art style, searing the images in your memory. And in an oft-overlooked high point, the organ score is creepy in the best way possible.
An absolutely scathing satire of capitalism, Seniors 3000 is the complete package. In a world where middle-aged and elderly employees are basically told to accept their obsolescence, this film provides a twisted tale of wish fulfillment for all those who feel left behind by their corporate overlords. When Marlene can’t keep up with the fast-paced technology of her office, she somehow merges with her old printer to become a hyper productive cyborg. In her quest to simply be seen as useful, her greedy boss exploits her to create new, unpaid hybrids of all generations so that he can increase his profit.
The animation choices provide a great contrast, as the “human” characters and environments are drawn in traditional 2D, in a style reminiscent of 90s Nickelodeon cartoons like Hey Arnold! or Invader Zim, and the robotic senior citizens are rendered in blocky 3D CGI like the delivery men in Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” music video. It’s a visual marvel that has to be seen to be believed.
The key to a great dystopian story is in how resonant and plausible it feels to modern day, real world experience. Though the film isn’t exactly set in the future, Seniors 3000 conveys a thematic work-a-day hellscape that fits the mold perfectly, as we get to see the extremes of labor relations in stark, concerning, and simultaneously hilarious terms. It’s a world where people are literally willing to sacrifice their humanity for the approval of those who think of them as disposable, and the lengths the film goes to in order to illustrate just how literal that idea can be is both fascinating and damning in its commitment to the bit.
Death is a delicate subject for a child, because one never truly knows how someone so young will be able to process this most sad but natural part of life. Wenjia Shou’s film, Existence, gives us a solemn and lovely exploration of that very concept.
Drawn in what appear to be light, washed out pastels, she tells the audience about the experience of losing her grandfather at a young age. She cannot remember his face (given minimal detail), or even that much about his personality. But, as she points out, there is a warmth in her heart whenever she thinks of him as an abstract concept, illustrated beautifully by soaring birds. This is how, deep down, even as literal memory fades, she knows he was real.
It’s a presentation that will bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye, as we’ve all lost someone dear to us, and yet as years pass, physical features disappear from our recollections. But the emotional impression they leave on you is much stronger than a mental image, and it takes more than death to make it go away. To show such a complex idea in such simple terms is part of why animation is such a wonderful medium for storytelling, and a textbook example of why I love this program more than any other part of the Brooklyn Film Festival.