Film Festival for Kids: High on Art, Low on Pandas

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A scene from Mia and the Migoo

The New York International Children's Film Festival (NYICFF), which opens this weekend, is the biggest children's film festival in the U.S. This is not the kind of event where they screen Dr Seuss' Horton Hears Another Who or Madagascar 3: Botswanarama! This is a venue for those budding cineastes between the ages of 3 and 18 for whom this weekend could not be complete without screening a film in the Children and War series — or without judging, alongside jury members John Turturro, Susan Sarandon and Gus Van Sant, the challenging entertainments chosen by the festival. You can't help feeling that if Rush Limbaugh were to come up with his fantasy politically-correct liberal-media-élite pile-on, it would sound a lot like a planning session for the NYICFF.

As such, the festival's marked preference for world cinema and unloved-by-the-mainstream-media themes — children and war, really? — is easy to make fun of. On the other hand, Hollywood's kids' movies: oy. Four of the last year's Top 10 box office champs were family films. With the exception of Wall-E, they were all manic and formulaic, in terms of both plot and animation style. In Kung Fu Panda, a madcap animal discovers the most important thing is being true to himself. In Madagascar 2, madcap animals learn the importance of being true to themselves. In Dr Seuss' Horton Hears a Who, a neurotic elephant learns ... and so on. (See pictures of animated movies.)

"Hollywood kid movies are big business, and anything that grosses under $150 million at the box office is deemed a failure," says Eric Beckman, co-founder and director of the NYICFF, which runs through March 15. "In this risk-averse environment, only certain kinds of movies get distributed — those that can reach the broadest audience, that have product tie-in potential and so on." There's no distribution model for smaller, more experimental children's films, he says, except the festivals. And parents desperate to sit through a story that's not about hyperkinetic animals who gain self-knowledge make for very willing chaperones.

Parental guidance is an issue, given some of the subject matter. The films at NYICFF have age recommendations rather than ratings. Many of them would be verboten at Dreamworks Animation or Disney. There is cursing. There is nudity. There are depictions of lovemaking, albeit animated and not very anatomical. One of the films, Sita Sings the Blues, a screen version of that noted YA classic The Ramayana of Valmiki, is told in four parallel narratives, each in a different animation style, one of which uses recordings of songs by 1920 jazz singer Annette Hanshaw instead of dialogue. It's an intriguing, long, slightly psychedelic experience that would possibly appeal most to stoner teens. It's recommended for 9-year-olds and up. (See the top 10 children's books of 2008.)

This risky material is balanced with stories too gently paced for the short-attention-spanned Nickelodeon set. Mia and the Migoo uses muted colors, storybook drawings and subtitles for its tale of a little girl's journey to find her father, while Michael Ocelot's Azur and Asmar has dazzlingly rich sets in which the humans are sometimes the least significant element. The movie contains many unsubtitled exchanges in Arabic, which may not be as disruptive to kids as to adults because of kids' greater reliance on visuals. Yes, the hammering home of the superior humanity and sophistication of the Islamic civilization of yore feels heavy-handed and predictable, but the art direction makes up for it. Of course, your kids won't know what art direction is, until the pint-size Pauline Kael in the next seat explains it.

Manhattan is by no means the only place with an annual children's film festival. Brooklyn has one too. And there are several on the other coast: Los Angeles has one (with its own junior filmmaking-and-animation workshop, natch), as does the San Francisco Bay Area. Seattle just wrapped up its fourth in mid-February. San Joaquin, Calif., started one this year, and Chicago has a long-standing children's film festival. Perhaps the parents who want their children to see movies about Islamic society or how war affects other kids mostly live in blue states and big cities — though that can't explain the festival in East Lansing, Mich. But the only other major kids' offering this weekend is the Jonas Brothers in 3-D. Surely having an alternative to that is a bipartisan issue.

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