As promised, here’s a rundown of what to look for at this weekend’s USA Film Festival’s KidFilm. (The full schedule can be found here.) A few of the movies are no brainers — children’s classics like The Wild Stalion, The Muppet Movie, and The Wizard of Oz. KidFilm offers the opportunity to see these on the big screen. But the highlights of the fest come in the form of less-common offerings, which I previewed with my two- and four-year olds. Jump for our review.
After watching animator Mo Willems’ short film “Knuffle Bunny,” my two-year-old found an old stuffed bunny that had been shoved in the bottom of a toy bin, renamed it “Knuffle Bunny,” and hasn’t let go of it since. It was also a hit with the four-year-old. She loves to nag to watch movies (I call the TV the “turn-off button,” the way my wife and I find a few minutes of calm and get a few things done). Her nagging started with The Wizard of Oz, and has alternated between Finding Nemo, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Wallace and Gromit: The Case of the Ware Rabbit. Now it’s “Knuffle Bunny.” There is something so endearing and honest about Mo Willems’ characters. The Knuffle series focuses on a father and his daughter Trixie. The two-year-old Trixie looses her stuffed bunny (Knuffle Bunny) at the Laundromat, and yet she can’t yet talk, so she can only tell her father that it is lost with a last-ditch temper tantrum at the foot of the stoop of their Brooklyn brownstone. Parental panic ensues. In “Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity,” an older Trixie inadvertently swaps stuffed bunnies with another girl during the first day of school. Neither girl notices the mistake until 3 a.m. that night. Again, parental panic ensues.
Willems’ charm comes from his characterizations — softly developed, simply wrought, and immediately recognizable and identifiable. I struggle to think of a children’s story that gets at the idiosyncrasies of child behavior –Â their mannerisms, modes of thought and argument, patterns of speech –Â in such a simple, unencumbered way. A few weeks ago, I asked the four-year-old why she likes watching movies. “Because you can pretend that you are the person in the movie,” she responded. I think this is why my two daughters took to the Willems’ stories so quickly. Here were characters so like themselves it didn’t take much to extend their own imaginations into the stories. Plus, Willems is funny, and unlike much children’s movies as of late, the jokes are aimed and children and their parents. I enjoy the multi-layered humor of the Pixar fare, but sometimes it is nice to share a sense of humor. In “Knuffle Bunny,” we can laugh on the same page, though I probably appreciated the following classic line more than the kids. When Trixie wakes up in the middle of the night crying about her lost Knuffle Bunny, her father (the narrator) dryly says: “that is when I tried to explain to her what 3 a.m. means.”
As I mentioned, Wallace and Gromit gets its fair share of playtime in our home, though the four-year-old didn’t like the short “A Matter of Loaf and Death,” that is part of the Aardman Animations Tribute. Wallace and Gromit is aimed at an older audience, though I sometimes wonder if the real audience are the adults who can get all of the silly, bawdy humor that is threaded throughout. It’s present in the Case of the Ware-Rabbit, but in that movie the four-year-old likes the bunnies, the chase sequences, and general vegetable silliness. In “Loaf and Death,” she could tell the villain, a big-boobed white bread ad-girl turned serial killer, was “rude” (her word)Â in a way that wasn’t endearing or funny for her. The kids weren’t interested, but I had a rather good time peeping through all the double entendre and distinctively British body-humor.
The Secret of Kells, a feature-length animated film about a the nephew of a monk learning the art of illuminated manuscripts during the era of Viking invasions, was way too scary for my two kids. The KidFilm program says six and up, and they are probably right. I shut off the movie before the two and four-year-olds got too scared and ruined a good night’s sleep. The movie, however, was phenomenal. What’s lost in the proliferation of digital animation is the art of animation as hand-craft — the painterliness of animation. There are some old Disney films that really exploited the beauty of this form (I’m thinking of The Fox and the Hound), where the backgrounds and scenery are more than just a representation of the film’s world, but a play of abstracts that profoundly and delightfully affect mood and tone. The Secret of Kells is about the art of illuminated manuscripts, and the very fabric of the movie is enveloped in this style.
Brendan is a young orphan who is sent to live with his uncle, an abbot of a monastery. The abbot is obsessed with building a wall to fortify the monastery against the Viking invasions. Brendan is more interested in the work of the brothers who are illuminating the sacred scriptures. When Ireland’s most famous master illuminator arrives, Brendan becomes his pupil against his uncle’s will. As the abbot prepares to guard the future of the monastery’s physical survival, Brenden becomes the only hope for the survival of the art of illumination.
Brendan’s apprenticeship becomes a quest and it takes him into fantastical illustrated worlds of dark forces, as he searches for a secret crystal that is the aid of the artist. The story is exciting and compelling, but it is the sheer beauty andÂ originality of the animation that makes The Secret of Kells such an engrossing watch. Even if you don’t have kids, this is probably one the best films playing in local theaters this weekend.