Now that the teens and adults have had their respective cracks at taking over the TIFF Bell Lightbox with their festivals, it comes time for kid to finally have their run of the place with the TIFF Kids International Film Festival kicking off today and running through April 21st. More than just a bland regurgitation of family oriented programming designed to act as a virtual babysitter, TIFF Kids has amassed quite the stacked line-up of features and shorts for the 12 and under set.
One of the largest festivals of its kind in the world, TIFF Kids always marks a fun time to be in and around the Lightbox. Of course, there’s the award winning digiPlaySpace that’s been open for a better part of the month in the Lightbox gallery that remains open till the end of this year’s festival, but there’s plenty more to give the building a fun, youthful energy for a couple of weeks.
The TIFF Kids Jump Cuts program offers young filmmakers who have submitted their work to the festival a chance to showcase their wares and hard work before both public and school programming. Some of Sesame Street’s favourite Muppets (Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Abby Cadabby) will be making appearances and hanging out with youngsters on the first weekend of the festival to conincide with a screening of Elmo: The Musical on the morning of Sunday the 13th at 11am. There’s also a character drawing workshop for kids that Sunday, as well, overseen by Sesame Workshop artist Barry Goldberg.
Up and coming Portland, Oregon based stop motion animation studio LAIKA (Coraline, ParaNorman) will also be presenting a behind the scenes look at their animation process with a talk from Mark Shapiro on Tuesday, April 15th at 1:00pm that will include a little peek at what they are working on for The Boxtrolls later this year. If classic animation is your thing or want to expose the kids to, the festival is also hosting a retrospective of recently restored Pink Panther cartoons on the 12th and 13th to celebrate the characters’ 50th anniversary.
But as with anything happening at the Lightbox, the films come first and foremost, and almost all of them except the big ticket special screenings will be shown more than once. This year for their opening night film (even though it’s technically two days after the festival starts) and family oriented fiesta, the festival has selected Rio 2 (Thursday, April 10th, party starts at 5:00pm), the sequel to the Blue Sky (Ice Age, Epic) animated success from a few years ago where a pair of macaws (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway) return to the jungles of the Amazon to hopefully connect to some long thought lost relatives.
While the Sesame gang and a bunch of birds might have the highest profile slots of the festival there are still plenty of big name features making debuts or return engagements from the proper adult version of TIFF last fall. Disney’s latest nature documentary Bears (Friday, April 11th, 6:30pm) will get screened in advance of its Earth Day weekend release. This year’s closing film is the animated adventure The House of Magic (Saturday, April 19th, 5:00pm, complete with a pre-movie magic show!) about a stray cat and various other critters working together to stop their magician owner’s house from being sold off after their caretaker suffers an accident.
Films returning to the festival this year from TIFF include the utterly charming superhero adventure Antboy, a Danish production about a 12 year old superhero that’s kind of a cross between Batman and Spider-man (but, you know, with ant powers) facing off against his first supervillain, Giraffada, a heartwarming tale (based on a true story) of a young Palestinian boy and his father trying to help a giraffe along an arduous journey to get to safety, and the delightfully batty Spanish import Zip & Zap and the Marble Gang, which deftly blends quality YA writing, comic book aesthetics, and action set pieces into a dazzling spectacle pitting rebellious students against the evil administration at their boarding school. And although it didn’t play at TIFF, this year’s kids fest brings the third film in the popular German produced Famous Five series, which has become a bit of a staple for the festival the past couple of years and has amassed quite a built in following (although seeing the other two would probably make the most sense to do first).
But if those features are old hat to you and yours after the last festival, there are still some great films in the lineup making their local debuts. For older kids, the Dutch drama Regret! deals with the subject of bullying in sometimes frighteningly realistic ways when a bullied teen goes missing and the two friends who could have stopped his torment go on a search while wondering if there’s more they could have done. Younger kids and adults who got a kick out of The Lego Movie should find a lot to love in the inventiveness, good nature, and genuinely silly fun of the animated adventure Knight Rusty, in which a bumbling robot attempts to save the kingdom and cobbled together denizens of Scrapland from an evil monarchy. Those more musically inclined should check out Felix, a delightful and thoughtful drama from South Africa surrounding a young kid who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps as a jazz musician and saxophonist.
This year, though, the shorts programs contain some of the best work of the festival, with lots of different programs to choose from (again, screening multiple times) and a nice blend of animation, documentaries, and fictional shorts that could help to educate kids in the various different styles of storytelling.
On the animation side of things, a quartet of charming and gorgeously mounted productions stand out above what we were able to watch in advance. In Elaine Chen’s Wallpaper (in the Creativity Unleashed programme), a young man moving into a new house strips away the layers of the walls in his bedroom to imagine the history of those who came before him. The hilarious and heartwarming The Odd Sound Out (screening as part of Loot Bag Junior: Brave New Worlds) has an old school Disney or Warner Brothers vibe to it as an errant trumpet noise tries to find a place in the world where he can fit into the rhythms of day to day life. In what’s essentially the kids version of Pleasantville, The Numberlys (also in Loot Bag Junior: Brave New Worlds), the numbers one through five get fed up and decide to invent the alphabet in a stunning looking romp that takes the interesting approach of sometimes telling the story vertically instead of just left to right.
But the best here (aside from appearances by the excellent Oscar winning short Mr. Hublot in the Creativity Unleashed programme) is the visually dazzling and sometimes bittersweet friendship of Rabbit and Deer (screening in the Who’da Thunk It programme). Inspired by a Rubik’s Cube, a two dimensional deer becomes obsessed with trying to solve it, making his perplexed rabbit roommate a little concerned. After a mishap with a cup of coffee and his computer, the deer becomes three dimensional. While he’s happy with the changes, Rabbit can’t do the same things in only two dimensions and their friendship becomes strained. It’s silly, modern, has a definite adult appeal, and it has a beautiful message about accepting the differences of one’s friends.
A pair of docs brimming with messages of self-confidence should inspire kids who see them. In Jamey’s Fight (screening in the Slice of Life programme), a 16 year old Rotterdam teen with a stammer and mild Tourettes works to keep his condition under control through hard work while trying to land a spot on a prestigious collegiate soccer club. Similarly sports themed, Chikara: The Sumo Wrestlers Son (in the Strength Through Struggle programme, and brought to you by the people who helped produce the very adult feature documentary The Act of Killing last year) follows a young man training long hours every day to become one of the most revered wrestlers in the world despite not being the biggest kid there is and having a lot to live up to in his ex-champion father’s shadow.
There are a pair of live action shorts that could be classified as “downers,” but they’re actually quite exceptional. In Bahar in Wonderland (in the Courageous Dreamers programme), a young girl is separated from her refugee father outside a train station washroom in Europe as they attempt to flee from their war torn homeland. Scared, alone, and in a bit of a daze the young girl sets out on a frightening solo trip through the city to find her dad. It’s definitely a bit uneasy, especially when the film reveals what the pair are running from, but it’s a great bit of filmmaking that adults will probably enjoy more than kids.
Similarly, the short Until I Know (in the What Now? programme and once again coming from the very well represented country of Germany) adopts a bit of a noir-ish vibe to tell the story of a young bully who has remorse about tampering with the brakes on a young girl’s bike and he sets off on an all night quest to make sure she’s okay. Although it’s a short the film does a great job of making its initially unlikeable main character a lot more sympathetic as his mission drags on.
But probably the best short, and the best film in the festival, is the delightfully silly and still wonderfully topical Fatima (in the Beyond My Years programme), in which the titular nine year old girl mistakenly things she’s overheard her parents talking of getting a divorce, enacting a series of mishaps designed to make her parents come back together, but instead creates bigger problems within her family and with her best friend. It’s sweet, funny, perceptive, inventively shot to always appear like its coming from the perspective of a child and it’s definitely the only film I have ever seen to make references to Hellraiser and Om Shanti Om in the same scene. It’s really wonderful and sweet, but also slyly subversive in its take down of romantic comedies and really poignant in its look at the stigma of divorce.
This is just a small offering of what can be seen at the festival, so for more information, show times for the films listed above, and a full list of features, shorts programmes, and special events, head on over to the TIFF Kids website. I’m sure even if you were a single adult no one would hold it against you for sneaking away to some of these. Maybe you could even borrow someone’s kid if it makes you feel better. But if you can’t make it and you still want to feel better and you want to give a chance for child in need to check out a film they might not otherwise get to see, why not think about donating to the Pocket Fund, an in house initiative designed to bring equal cultural access to children within the community. You might make a lot of kids happy in the process.
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