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Binocular Briefs – Spotlight on Annecy 2023 Part 1: Features

Ottawa Animation Festival artistic director Chris Robinson takes a look at 6 intriguing feature films competing at this year’s Annecy International Animation Festival, which runs June 11-17.

It's a strange period in animation festival land. There was a time when short-form animation was the rule. In the early 2000s, animated features grew and grew. Today, shorts are getting longer, and features are getting shorter. Will the two eventually meet and birth a new hybrid beast?

Let’s hope not.

Alright, at this year’s Annecy International Animation Festival – Annecy 2023 - that runs June 11-17, there are a surprising 20 features competing in two competitions (the main competition and the Contrechamps section). Since we have no time or desire to review each and every one of those films, let’s take a look at five animated features that might be worth your time and attention.

Now, a quick note. I had wanted to preview Art College 1994, the latest from Liu Jian (Have a Nice Day), but a screener hasn't arrived in time. I’ve no doubt it will be an intriguing film, so just go check it out.

Robot Dreams, Pablo Berger, Spain/France

New York City, sometime in the 1980s. A lonely dog sits playing computer tennis before making himself a TV dinner. He flicks through the TV channels. There ain’t much happening until he spots a TV ad selling a robot companion and immediately orders it.

After putting the robot together, the two new buds head out and explore the city, encountering life, music, companionship, and joy that had been missing from the dog’s life until then. It’s Ted Lasso vibes with a robot and dog.

And of course, all good things must get smacked in the head at some point.

During a pleasant visit to Coney Island, Robot dries up, becomes paralysed, and gets stuck on the beach. Dog is forced to leave Robot there until the beach re-opens in the summer. As the seasons pass, Dog tries to find new friends, while Robot can lie on the beach with his dreams. Will the friends ever find each other again?

Based on the graphic novel by Sarah Varon, Robot Dreams has a beautiful, low-key vibe that eschews excessive chatter, relying more on facial expressions and rhythm. Inspired by Buster Keaton and early 20th-century Hollywood films, Robot Dreams is a gentle, playful, loving, and refreshingly non-sarcastic take on friendship. It’s a story we all need.

White Plastic Sky, Tibor Bánóczki & Sarolta Szabó, Hungary/Slovakia

I admit I’m one of those simpletons who gets a bit put off when I see any form of rotoscope used in animation. Hell, any animation film that is constructed like a live-action work makes me want to strangle domestic ducks. You have this art form where there are essentially no rules, yet all you want to do is make a coloring book (hello, Finding Vincent). At least when Linklater used Sabiston’s rotoscopy-ish software for Waking Life, it made sense. It beautifully created a surreal dreamscape that matched the disjointed philosophical musings of the characters.

Shoot…sorry… I went off on a tangent again. Let’s get on track here.

White Plastic Sky is an environmental thriller/love story set in 2123. The world is in, well, pretty bad shape. Animals are long gone, and the soil is poisoned. Things are so bad that humans have to live under a plastic dome to survive. The only way they can sustain their existence is by feeding on themselves. No, no, this isn’t another tedious zombie story. At age 50, people must agree to be turned into trees. The trees provide humanity with oxygen and food.

Our protagonists are a young married couple: Stefan, a psychiatrist, and his wife Nora. Struggling with the death of their young son, Nora volunteers to embrace a tree existence. A stunned Stefan decides to do whatever he must to save her.

Touching upon themes of climate disaster, refugees, mortality, war, and viruses, the core of the story comes back to two fundamentally human traits: love and hope. But is that enough?

So, yeah, White Plastic Sky has that rotoscope style and is often paced, edited, and shot like a live-action film. But let’s put aside my surface moans. Underneath it all is an original, provocative, and deeply relevant story that, refreshingly, provides no clear answers to issues we are already facing in the here and now.

When Adam Changes, Joël Vaudreuil, Canada

This unconventional coming-of-age tale set in a Quebec town is a pleasantly awkward under-the-radar surprise that captures the comedy, tragedy, stupidity, and heartbreak of a period in an awkward teenager’s life.

Adam is a 15-year-old who is frequently bullied and shamed about his long torso and awkward body by classmates and his bitchy grandmother. There’s a twist, though: each time Adam is mocked, his body changes. During summer break, Adam faces a number of life-changing challenges (loss, love, friendship, family, puberty, and summer jobs) and comes to see that life can be utterly baffling and shitty yet somehow kind of beautiful.

The subdued, lo-fi graphics and quirky, deadpan characters will likely remind some of the works of Mike Judge, Aki Kaurismaki, and Richard Linklater, but this is no tepid cover song. Vaudreuil’s minimalist animation and design perfectly mirror the awkwardness of Adam’s life and his surrounding world. When Adam Changes is a strange, touching, and original work about a familiar theme that also shows you don’t need a big budget or a flashy graphic style to tell a good story.

Four Souls of Coyote, Áron Gauder, Hungary

This is a tough one. Despite the worthy intentions, important themes, and relatively sensitive portraits, some folks might not appreciate a film dealing with indigenous issues being made by non-indigenous folks. The argument is that Indigenous people have been silenced, exploited, and mistreated for so long that they should have space to tell their own stories. I tend to support that argument. It would be akin to, say, Wes Anderson making a film about the racist experiences of minorities in the U.S. 

With that tricky preamble out of the way, let’s dive into Four Souls of Coyote.

Four Souls of Coyote is the latest film by Áron Gauder, known in these parts for his potent award-winning feature, The District (2004). Far from the urban settings of that film, Four Souls of the Coyote is set in a more mythical landscape.

Pipeline construction - led by a trio of American capitalist twits - is being slowed by indigenous protests. Within the protest camp, an elder arrives and shares (around a campfire naturally) a creation story with the protesters. From there, Gauder explores the history of Earth and how it shifted from harmony and balance in nature to us twit humans taking over and making a damn mess of it all. Contrary to White Plastic Sky, though, which offered no easy exit strategy, the ending of Four Souls feels too easy and naive. Protests and rallies ain’t gonna sway the psychotics in power.

Now, content problems aside, Gauder and team have crafted a beautifully designed and imaginative work that, at its core, touches upon environmental, historical, and political issues that affect every one of us. Arguments about cultural appropriation aside (hopefully the screening of the film generates some meaningful dialogue about this issue), you’re better off seeing Four Souls than the latest facile big studio nonsense.

Chicken For Linda!, Chiara Malta and Sébastien Laudenbach, France/Italy

A beautiful opening that immediately grabs your attention with a pivotal scene playing out inside brightly colored floating circles. The overall design, with its raw, sketchy, pastel vibes brings to mind U.P.A and assorted Little Golden Books from a time before you and I existed.

So, but what’s it all about you ask?

Well... it’s sort of about chicken.

See, a young girl named Linda is accused of stealing her mom’s ring. The angry mother loses it and smacks Linda. The thing is, she didn’t do anything wrong. See, the cat ate the ring and then puked it out.

How can Mom make it up to poor Linda?

Well, chicken of course! Come on, it’s in the title.

Linda wants a chicken dinner with peppers. The last time she had chicken was when her father made it on ‘that’ day… his last day.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem. See there’s a general strike going on (when isn’t there a strike in France!) and all the shops are closed! Well, they need to go to the source and find a farmer who might give them a chicken.

Chicken for Linda! is a touching, funny, and frantic story (be warned though, there are musical numbers… but fortunately they’re not as aurally piercing as the usual sing-song stuff we are assaulted with by American studios). Silly storyline aside, this is a refreshing exploration of the relationship between a mother and daughter as they travel together through the often-turbulent landscape of single parenting; a journey that is occasionally littered with potholes and pitfalls yet always enveloped by love.

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.