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Animation Is Film Festival aims to expand the definition of an art form that’s not just for kids

Mary in a scene from the animated movie "Mary and the Witches' Flower."
(Animation is Film Festival )

Animated features earned their own Oscar category in 2001 and three have been nominated for best picture. But even those storied titles (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Up,” “Toy Story 3”) can fit into the “kids’ fare” box many still perceive for the format. A new, world-class festival launching in Hollywood aims to draw animation in a much-wider frame.

“The mission is about taking the blinders off what animation can be,” says GKids CEO Eric Beckman, founder and artistic director of the Animation Is Film Festival.

“In this country, animation has been most associated with Saturday-morning cartoons and the films of Disney … that type of content. But if you walk into an art gallery, there’s a huge, insane range of things you can look at and animation is the same.”

Beckman knows of what he speaks. Before he founded GKids — which has emerged as the leading distributor of off-the-beaten-track, often award-contending animated titles (including the coveted Studio Ghibli catalog) — he co-founded the New York International Children’s Film Festival. Some 20 years later, that event has gone from a one-weekend, to a monthlong, Oscar-qualifying event.

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Pixar's latest computerized movie "The Incredibles."
(Disney )

The inaugural edition of the Animation Is Film Festival runs Oct. 20-22 at the TCL Chinese 6. Apart from receptions, Q&As and a VR lounge, its screenings will include major hits such as “The Incredibles” (with Q&A) and “The Lego Batman Movie” (also with Q&A), and two shorts programs (one, “Songs of Love and Death,” by female filmmakers).

However, the “core” of the festival, says Beckman, is its program of “New Films in Competition.” These are features yet to be released in the United States, including some world or North American premieres. Many are candidates for the Oscar shortlist.

For instance, “The Breadwinner” is the tale of a young girl in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, from the makers of “The Secret of Kells” and executive-produced by Angelina Jolie. “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is the debut film from Studio Ponoc, which is made up of talents from the late, lamented Studio Ghibli, including the director of “The Secret World of Arrietty.” (Both events had sold out at press time.)

“Mary” has “a female lead and it’s based on a British children’s book, ‘The Little Broom,’ which was also a strong influence on the ‘Harry Potter’ series — it features a school of witches,” says Beckman.

There’s plenty of films for kids, but there’s plenty of films that are very, very, very adult ... it’s not an either-or, it’s an expansion of.

Eric Beckman, GKids CEO and Animation Is Film Festival founder

“There’s plenty of films for kids, but there’s plenty of films that are very, very, very adult. There’s a huge range of styles and formats and countries represented, including major Hollywood studio films. So it’s not an either-or, it’s an expansion of,” says Beckman. He says it was particularly important to showcase this diverse selection “in Los Angeles, the heart of the industry, where people live and breathe the business. You can hopefully make a statement about what animation can be.”

GKids is a leading animated distributor, but this is not a “vanity project,” says Peter Debruge of Variety, which is one of the festival’s partners. Debruge, who is an Animation Is Film juror, insists this is not “a GKids festival.”

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“They’ve really tried to make this inclusive and representative of the best animation that’s out there. It’s kind of scandalous, but I think the United States does not have a premier animation-focused feature-film festival — until now.”

Beckman’s point about the films not being just for kids is driven home by the inclusion of multiple titles by Masaaki Yuasa, who’s something of a bad-boy maverick of Japanese animation. “He actually has three films at the festival, two in competition. The third is a cult classic we’re showing at a sort of Midnight Madness: ‘Mind Game.’ It’s definitely, definitely, definitely not for kids. Or for some sensitive adults. ‘Night Is Short, Walk on Girl,’ is a crazy romantic comedy with psilocybin overtones. But ‘Lu Over the Wall’ is very much a kids’ film.”

Paola in a scene from the animated movie "Virus Tropical."
(Animation is Film Festival )

One not-for-kids title enjoying its world premiere is the Colombian-Ecuadorian “Virus Tropical,” based on the graphic novel by Power Paola. The memoir is the feature directorial debut of Paola’s friend Santiago Caicedo, but he says the artist “did all the drawings, she did all the art direction. We have more than 5,000 drawings she made for the film. She’s like a drawing machine. A drawing beast.

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“It’s a coming-of-age film; it deals with the story of Paola from when she’s born until she’s 18 and leaves her house. It deals with those small emotional problems and crises that all of us have to deal with to become who we are as grown-ups. The only thing that gets us through in life is being true to ourselves.”

The filmmakers are excited to bow at a brand new festival, where Caicedo will attend a Q&A.

“It’s a beautiful place to be,” he says. “Being there is telling us that all this effort, making this really raw, animated, black-and-white adult film that has all the recipe for disaster, is not really a disaster and can be competing with the best animated films of the world.”

Another decidedly grown-up entry is “Tehran Taboo,” a beautifully rotoscoped drama with intertwining stories set against the cognitively dissonant clash of Iran’s strict, theocratic society and the every-day realities of sex, drugs and corruption.

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“You could not shoot this in Tehran as live action, because of censorship. You’d need cooperation from the Cultural Ministry and films department,” says expat director and co-writer Ali Soozandeh, who now lives in Germany. He’ll be in Hollywood for a Q&A.

“Animation is not so concrete as live-action. There’s more space for imagination. We did tests with hand-drawn characters or 3-D characters or puppet animation, but none of them worked, really. We needed a touch of reality,” thus the rotoscoping.

Although the film has screened in Europe, Soozandeh says, “There’s no way to show it in Iran. I don’t have any feedback from audiences in Iran because we can’t show them the film.”

But the festival certainly doesn’t leave the kids behind. One of the awards contenders receiving a Q&A will be “The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales …,” co-directed by Benjamin Renner (an Oscar nominee for “Ernest & Celestine”) and Patrick Imbert.

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“We are both influenced by the old silent movies, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The main character is always pure-hearted,” says Imbert of the film’s three tales told by a theater company made up of animals from one farm.

“I was in London for the BFI festival, the biggest audience ever for this movie. It was really good to hear the kids were involved in the characters. They were asking questions about their parents, why they do this or do this? It’s warm to the heart.”

Imbert says “Fox” started as a short for television, then grew into a feature, then got into cinemas, “and now we go to Hollywood. Wow! It’s really amazing. We’re really, really proud to do this premiere at the festival.

“Maybe in the future, when people talk about the festival, they’ll remember the first year, there was ‘The Big Bad Fox.’ ”

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