It’s come time for the programmers at the Toronto International Film Festival to start kidding around again with their annual TIFF Kids showcase. For the second year after breaking off into this series – geared towards the 12 and under crowd – and the older skewing TIFF Next Wave, a series of features, shorts, and all matters of silliness and fun from around the world will unfold at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. As with most great films, most of these don’t require that you have a child of your own to bring as a prerequisite, but it couldn’t hurt, right?
That kind of makes it a little unfortunate that the opening film of the series (running Tuesday April 9th to Sunday, April 21st) gets things off to a bit of a shaky start. The first ever 3-D animated production from Canada, The Legend of Sarila (which like most films will screen more than once throughout the festival) comes with some rich Inuit mythology and a good heart, but not much else to thrill or engage most audience members regardless of age. This story of a young man on a quest to return the animals to his slowly dying village suffers from having a hero who really doesn’t do much of anything (most of the action and plot development comes from sidekicks) and some particularly angular animation that makes the film look like cut scenes from a video game from six or seven years ago. Still, it’s got a good voice cast (including Christopher Plummer and Genevieve Bujold), a really cute and amusing lemming sidekick, and it’s nice to see that for two of the four screenings the film will be presented in its original French language dub sans subtitles.
The festival also marks the return of two films to previously play at TIFF festivals getting another shot in front of local audiences. The stunning and genuinely sweet French animated film Ernest & Celestine (based on the Belgian storybooks from author Gabrielle Vincent) promises to delight all but the most hardened of hearts with this tale of an artistically minded mouse with an interesting choice of day jobs (a dentist) who befriends a somewhat cynical musically inclined bear. It’s a simple and touching story of friendship told with an eye for great visuals and a considerable amount of charm and quiet grace. The film’s first two screenings are reserved primarily for school groups during the week, but the third and final screening will have a professional reader on hand so the younger children won’t miss any of the subtitles.
Also returning, this tile from the Next Wave festival earlier this year, is Fame High, a somewhat standard, by-the-numbers documentary looking into the lives of several students at a prestigious performing arts high school. It’s not much, but it’s effective. A better, more winning alternative along the same lines comes in the form of Once in a Lullaby, an inside look into the world renowned P.S. 22 children’s choir from Staten Island. It covers a lot of the same ground as Fame High (pressures of school, parents, life changing obstacles), but these are kids that aren’t necessarily trying to be professional singers for their whole lives, adding a much more universally identifiable layer to the similar subject matter.
A trio of subtitled overseas offerings look to entertain the older kids. The best and most universally accessible of the three (amongst others that we weren’t able to review or watch before press time) is undoubtedly the moving family drama Igor and the Cranes’ Journey. This Polish/German/Israeli co-production takes a look at the distance caused by divorce through the eyes of a child and the lens of a story about saving and protecting wildlife. Young Igor wants nothing more than to spend time with his ornithologist father in the Russian countryside as he tracks the migratory patterns of cranes from there to Israel to Africa, but his teacher mother (who has begun dating once again) has ordered a move to Israel for the two of them. Convinced to see his father once again and keeping up with him through a website that keeps him abreast of how the bird he watched hatch is now potentially in danger, young Igor begins to concoct a plan to bring the birds (and consequently his father) to his current location where nothing else seems to really interest him. Told not singularly from the point of view of the child, but also following the father through the pitfalls of trying to keep his job (portrayed excellently by Tomasz Sobczak), this is an emotionally complex and wholly relatable story about trying to fit in.
Vampire Sisters was a huge hit in its native Germany, and it’s a funny and breezy pseudo-spoof of the Twilight franchise crossed with an 80s teen comedy in the vein of The Worst Witch and Teen Wolf. A pair of young vampires move from Transylvania to the suburbs with their mortal mom and hardcore vampire father and try to adapt to normal schooling and strange suburban ways. One of the girls wants to be more human, while the other quite rightfully embraces her own uniqueness instead of blending into the background around her. There are some hijinks with a loopy next door neighbour out for revenge for what happened to his mother decades earlier, but the film works best when sticking to the message of trying to just be yourself no matter what others tell you. Not all of the jokes and gags translate well to North America, but it’s still easy to see why it was so popular in Europe.
Then there’s the curious programming of the Chinese film The Diary of Summer, which despite a kid friendly hook might be a bit too dark and depressing overall to fully translate with younger audiences on a thematic level. A chronically underachieving and somewhat boorish grade schooler is tasked over the summer by his teacher to complete ten acts of kindness unto other to advance in his studies. He’s constantly monitored by the girl at the top of his class at the teacher’s request, and although the boy and his mates often bully the girl somewhat mercilessly for being smart, they begin to learn a lot about each other along the way. What makes Diary of Summer an odd choice is that it seems to be very much of its culture and not in a particularly positive way. Students talk about being beaten for disobedience routinely and almost with a sense of detached bravado, and everyone seems to be under constant amounts of internal and external pressure, making it even more intense. There’s some humour to be gleaned from just how bad the boy is at helping people (at first, anyway), but it’s often kind of dark and made like it’s supposed to be preparing children for how dark the world really is. It’s interesting in terms of how dark it is, but parents should be prepared to answer a lot of questions when this one is over.
But the films aren’t all that TIFF Kids have to offer. There plenty of workshops and hands on activities for kids and parents to enjoy and marvel at together. The Jump Cuts Young Filmmakers Showcase brings works from the ultimate in emerging artists to their most appreciative audiences in two categories of age groups, which is prefect if you want to be the ultimate hipster and say “Yeah, well I saw (insert name here) before they were even making student films.” The classics Sherlock Jr. (with Buster Keaton) and Melies’ A Trip to the Moon will be screened back to back twice to introduce the youngsters to cinema when it was still in its infancy itself.
But most cherished of all – and certainly most popular gauging by how there are often line-ups ready and waiting to get into it on weekday mornings since its opening back in March – is the return of the digiPlaySpace in the Lightbox’s on-site gallery space. A multimedia experience quite literally like no other of its kind, it’s more than just games kids can sit in front of a screen and play; although there is that in the almost exhaustively comprehensive “Appcade” set up in the centre of the room with more games to play from indie developers around that world than one could play in a full day. It’s also a full on interactive playground where kids can squash or be benevolent towards digital bugs on a carpet, control the weather, and paint the walls like Jackson Pollack simply by running, jumping, and flailing. Best of all: it’s priced cheaper than most trips to a museum ($8 or $5 with an accompanying TIFF Kids ticket), but tickets and a specific time of entry are required from the box office. Better to hit that up before the movies you want to see or even on a different day altogether. You might not ever come out in time because you’re having too much fun. And isn’t that what any festival geared towards kids should be all about in the first place?
For a full list of films, events, and for a comprehensive programming guide that tells parents and kids all they need to know, head to the TIFF Kids website.