Other festival highlights include “Ernest & Celestine,” which Beckman labels one of the most talked-about films on the program. The French-Belgian minimalist cartoon by Benjamin Renner, about an unlikely friendship between a mouse named Celestine and a bear named Ernest, recently won the César Award for best animated feature. Beckman calls it “ ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ for the younger set.”
“Starry Starry Night,” by Taiwanese Tom Shu-yu Lin, is one of the strongest non-animated features. Also tackling tough issues like death and divorce, the film, based on the celebrated picture book by Jimmy Liao, weaves together the real and fantasy worlds of a daydreaming seventh-grader named Mei, whose parents are fighting and whose grandfather is dying. She forges a friendship with Jay, a fellow school misfit, and together they escape to the cottage of Mei’s grandfather, whose carved wooden totems come to life and protect them on their journey.
The weird and touching romp “A Letter to Momo,” by Japan’s Hiroyuki Okiura, also concerns a girl’s fantasy life. Again, the father is dead, and the single mom and daughter Momo move from Tokyo to the remote island of Shio. In her new home, she discovers a trio of goblins — one frog-like, one troll-like, and one Gollum-like — assigned to watch over her. The film has all the hallmarks of Japanese animation — pale painterly backdrops and heroines with gigantic eyeballs — but the oddball humor and the way that Momo finally understands an unfinished letter from her father provide a quirky take on grief
The only real dud — or “spud” — is “Meet the Small Potatoes,” by American Josh Selig. It’s unclear who the target audience is for this mockumentary about a Beatles-like rock band whose members are talking, singing potatoes. The rock-doc jokes and faux archival footage will go over the heads of most younger children, while also not being clever enough to hold the attention of older kids and adults. And the inane musical numbers lack any shred of inventiveness.
Rounding out the program are three short-film packages (each with a trio of shorts and geared toward a different age group), and the features “The Zigzag Kid” (Belgium), “Kirikou and the Men and the Women” and “A Monster in Paris” (both from France), and “Welcome to the Space Show” (Japan).
There’s a final tie that binds the films on this festival program: scarcity. Most of these movies won’t ever be seen in theaters, or be released on DVD or Netflix.
In this regard, Beckman says his festival might be a real “savior” for the animation industry overseas, giving these indie filmmakers an audience in the States.
“It’s hard to get distribution in this country,” Beckman says, when every kids’ film is “being compared [with] ‘The Croods.’ ”
Like genetically engineered foods, there’s nothing untasty about a regime of digitally modified cartoons for kids. It’s just not the most balanced or satisfying diet.
Tickets and more information at www.mfa.org/film.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at email@example.com.