Shadow puppetry dazzles in 'Tales of the Night.'

Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

Adam Hartzell October 20, 2011

Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.

Live-action, 3–D, stop-motion, even shadow-puppetry are all in rotation at the NY/SF International Children's Film Festival October 21-23 at SF Film Society | New People Cinema. The third dimension arrives via Belgium's Sammy's Adventures: The Secret Passage and a stunning shadow-puppetry opener from France, Tales of the Night. Stop-motion animation flashes forward with the German Sandman and the Lost Sand of Dreams. Denmark's Tigers and Tattoos, and France and Luxembourg's The Storytelling Show kick it old school with animation in its standard form.

But it's not all drawings, and puppetry. Live action finds its place in a Germany-Sri Lanka co-production about a mahout (elephant guardian) titled Chandani: The Daughter of the Elephant Whisperer, the return of Hong Kong's Echoes of the Rainbow and the Canadian gem Aurélie Laflamme's Diary. And, finally, three programs of short films (Girls' POV, Kid Flix Mix and Party Mix) combine the live- and the animated action. The end result is  cinematic energy for kids that arrives without any marketing tie-ins for toys or junk food.

For those disappointed to see Quebec Film Week go away, Christian Laurence's 2010 film Aurélie Laflamme's Diary is more than a consolation prize. Perfect for teens, it's a story of an adolescent girl who has temporarily come to terms with grief over her father's death by consciously concocting a fantasy that she is merely an alien on this earth waiting to be sent to her home planet to reunite with Dad. (Interestingly, the protagonist of Echoes of a Rainbow also has space-age dreams, but more of the astronaut variety.) The film is full of the messiness of high school, and Marianne Verville's performance is truly engaging.

Another female to root for can be found in Arne Birkenstock’s Chandani: The Daughter of the Elephant Whisperer, a story of a young girl aspiring to be a the first girl mahout, or elephant guardian, in the history of Sri Lanka. A film appropriate for pre-teens and kids who can follow brief snippets of subtitles, the scenes of real live elephants romping around should be a treat for that age group. More animals: Ben Stassen’s Sammy's Adventures: The Secret Passage is 3–D adventure that younger children might find pleasing as well. This Belgian film is dubbed in English, so no worries with this one about having to keep up with subtitles while following the animated anthropomorphizing in a sea turtle's journey from tiny sprout to full grown shell. It’s a story of friendship that offers as a bonus an environmental primer on oil spills and the damage caused by those ubiquitous plastic bags.

Another subtitle-less option, Sinem Sakaoglu and Jesper Moller’s Sandman and the Lost Sand of Dreams comes from the stop-motion lineage of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In this dreamland of misfit toys, the sandman's sand is stolen by the creator of nightmares, Habumar. A young boy named Milo is taken from his lighthouse home to this land of sleep by a sheep who just won't get in line with the rest of the flock in order to recover the stolen goods. Young Milo must listen to the encouragement of the sage sandman to confront his fears and follow in the footsteps of his heroic sea captain grandfather.

Fans of standard animation can find it in Tigers and Tattoos and The Storytelling Show. The former is a story of an uncle taking care of his niece, who longs for a 'typical family,' unaware that she already has the very family she desires. The latter involves humor from a brother and sister entering their father into a bed-time story competition on TV. And the three shorts programs are, of course, peppered with animation films, such as the delightfully playful attempts at the cookie jar found in Ormie, the All That Cats series of beat-boxing cartoons and the truly delightful, drawn-before-your-eyes The Yellow Balloon, all part of the Kid Flix Mix. The Girls' POV series has two wonderfully surreal animated shorts, Book Girl & Cabinet Girl and Dust Kid, both in black-and-white but expanding the spectrum of inhabitable fantasy worlds. The Girls' POV series has a number of gems, more likely suited for an "older" young audience. It begins with the wonderful BAFTA winner I-Do-Air live-action short about a girl and her time at an indoor pool and includes a Spanish language film, Lightness, that might interest those who were recently transfixed by the French film Hedgehog (Le hérisson, Mona Achache) since Lightness is another intriguing story of yet another young aspiring girl filmmaker. And worthy of a festival of its own, the Girls' POV and Party Mix omnibuses both contain the smallest stop-motion animation film on record, Dot, a truly mesmerizing piece of work even without knowing its Guinness record-breaking status.

But truly the most anticipated film of the festival is renowned animation auteur Michel Ocelot's first film in 3–D, Tales of the Night. Folding six fables into this single film, Ocelot's extends shadow-puppetry into the 21st century with indelible images and timeless stories.

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