Independent Animation Makes Big Play for Oscar Gold

Since big-budget CG features have been so influential, it’s sometimes hard to hear the outside voices that vie for attention during awards season. GKids regularly reminds us that hand-drawn animation continues to attract Oscar nominations — for such Ir…

Since big-budget CG features have been so influential, it’s sometimes hard to hear the outside voices that vie for attention during awards season. GKids regularly reminds us that hand-drawn animation continues to attract Oscar nominations — for such Irish films as “The Secret of Kells”; French offerings, including “Ernest and Celestine,” and great titles from […]

Animation Is Film Festival Jury Winners Gain Leg Up in Animated Oscar Race

This year, a larger than usual group of independent and foreign-language features could factor in the animated Oscar race.

One film ran away with the two top prizes at Hollywood’s second annual Animation Is Film Festival (which ran October 19 – 21): Denis Do’s intense Cambodia family survival drama “Funan” won both the jury’s Grand Prize and the Audience Award, selected by festival attendees. The Special Jury Prize went to “Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles,” co-written and directed by Salvador Simó, which follows surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel and his producer friend Ramón as they shoot an ambitious documentary on the poverty-stricken remote Las Hurdes region in Spain.

Read More‘Mirai’ Could Mark GKids’ 11th Feature Oscar Nomination: Animation Is Film Festival

“’Funan’ reminds us that animation can tell any kind of story,” stated jury chairman Peter Debruge. “This versatile medium is by no means limited to fantastical or extraordinary subjects, but is in fact uniquely suited to incredibly personal ones as well. With ‘Funan,’ director Denis Do explores what his Cambodian mother experienced at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime, finding unexpected beauty within the horror of the situation. The jury agreed that the profound result actually feels more powerful by virtue of being made in animation. We were thrilled to watch all the films in competition this year, and to be reminded of the incredible diversity in subject, style, and sensibility to be found in this seemingly limitless art form.”

Debruge added, “We also chose to award a Special Jury Prize to ‘Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles’ for its innovative handling of unexpected subject matter.”

With over 5,000 guests in attendance this year, Animation Is Film hosted many sold out events including the Opening Night screenings of Mamoru Hosoda’s “Mirai” and Nina Paley’s “Seder-Masochism,” as well as behind-the-scenes previews of “Ralph Breaks the Internet” from Disney and “Spiderman-Man: Into the Spider-verse” from Sony.

Produced by animation distributor GKIDS in partnership with Annecy International Animation Film Festival, Variety, and Fathom Events, the AIF festival presented a program of eleven new animated feature films in competition, with selections from Asia, Europe, South America, and North America, and filmmakers attending for most screenings.

The 2018 Animation Is Film jury chaired by Debruge included yours truly,as well as veteran animation producer and Warner Bros. Animation executive Allison Abbate; Melissa Cobb, VP, Kids and Family at Netflix; Carolyn Giardina of The Hollywood Reporter, director Jorge R. Gutiérrez (“Book of Life”); filmmaker Jennifer Yuh Nelson (“Kung Fu Panda(s) 2 & 3”); filmmaker Henry Selick (“Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Coraline”); critic and historian Charles Solomon; and Mabel Tam, VP & Head film buyer, Landmark Theatres.

‘Mirai’ Could Mark GKids’ 11th Feature Oscar Nomination: Animation Is Film Festival

The Animation Is Film Festival entry from director Mamoru Hosoda offers a unique rite of passage that’s a reversal of “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

Animation

One of the popular hits at the second annual Animation Is Film Festival, “Mirai,” from famed Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda (who was admitted into the Academy this year), could deliver GKids’ 11th feature nomination.

“Mirai” marks Hosoda’s most personal movie yet about family. The enchanting, time-traveling fantasy about a four-year-old boy jealous of his baby sister is also unique for animation. “The story is about a secret garden showing the secrets of their family, and that was inspired by western children’s literature,” said Hosoda (“Summer Wars,” “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time,” “Wolf Children,” “The Boy and the Beast”).

“Mirai”

“We learn about the family tree through different methods,” he added. “On the other hand, unlike children’s stories, it’s not a fable with a lesson to be learned, other than children understanding the importance of experiencing family.”

Read More:Animation Is Film Festival Touts Indie Oscar Contenders

“Mirai” (named for the sister) was inspired by personal experience. When Hosoda and his wife first brought home their newborn, the three-year-old son gave his sister a suspicious look. “And when I saw that, I wondered how he was going to accept his role as an older brother,” Hosoda said. “But because we were so busy dealing with the baby, he threw a tantrum and shouted that his sister stole his love. The way he expressed his feelings like that was how an adult would act when they lose a love, so I wanted to depict a story based on my son.”

The result is a fascinating reversal of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” with a child experiencing a journey about love, responsibility, and family. But Hosoda admits he met early resistance. “When I first brought up making a four-year-old the main character, a lot of people said it was really reckless. Not much has happened to him. Why don’t we make him older so he’s more relatable? But I thought he has so much to learn and I wanted to depict the magic of ordinary life.”

“Mirai”

In the garden, the boy meets an older version of his sister, and plays with his pet dog transformed into a prince. He’s also transported back in time, where his great-grandfather teaches him how to ride a bike. Yet the director was surprised by how the resulting theme embraced the lifespan of the family in this manner.

“There are various cycle looped together and it’s like passing a baton to your next of kin,” said Hosoda. “It’s hard to tell in your everyday life that this is happening, but it’s a time travel through a full history that shows that parents had parents and those parents had parents.”

“Mirai” is also unique in the way that it transforms the house and garden into multi-dimensional worlds. Made at Tokyo’s Studio Chizu, the director and his team fully embraced CG as a way of embellishing the gorgeous hand-drawn animation with texturing for buildings, trains, a motorcycle, and Tokyo Station.

“The garden is very simple with an oak tree, but I extended it into different worlds through his eyes,” Hosoda said. “When it was a story about his dog, it became an old ruin church, but when it became the older version of Mirai, it became a jungle because it’s very full of life.”

“Mirai”

The odd-looking house was designed by an architect to lend a greater sense of authenticity. There are no walls and all the windows point to the garden as the focal point. “I added many stairs to the house so you can see what the family’s doing on each level,” Hosoda said. “One level was for playing, another for working, another for eating.”

And Hosoda made Tokyo Station scary as well as immense. “When he gets lost in the train station, I tried to remember when I got lost as a child,” he said. “What did the outside world look like? It’s very vast with a lot of unknowns. And the creepy train was designed by the actual designer of [Japan’s] bullet train [Hideo Shima].”

Hosoda additionally hired a children’s book author to design the Lost & Found cut out characters and then used CG to move the art around. “It’s very analog but intentional,” he said. “Why not use them both? Mr. Miyazaki is renown for not using CG, but I wonder about that because it’s a lot of work, so there should be a balance.”

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Kobe Bryant Kicked Off Jury of LA’s Animation Is Film Festival After #MeToo Outcry

Kobe Bryant was removed Wednesday from the jury of this weekend’s Animation Is Film Festival. The move followed an online petition that called on the festival to do so due to the retired NBA star’s 2003 rape accusation.
Bryant received the …

Kobe Bryant was removed Wednesday from the jury of this weekend’s Animation Is Film Festival. The move followed an online petition that called on the festival to do so due to the retired NBA star’s 2003 rape accusation.

Bryant received the Academy Award for Best Animated Short earlier this year with famed animator Glen Keane for the film “Dear Basketball,” based on the essay Bryant published on The Players’ Tribune announcing his retirement in 2015.

But with the #MeToo movement center stage in Hollywood, Bryant’s nomination and subsequent victory earned criticism from sexual abuse activists who pointed out his much-publicized sexual assault case 15 years ago, when a woman accused him of raping her in a Colorado hotel room. Bryant confessed to adultery but denied the assault accusation. Criminal charges were dropped after the accuser declined to testify, with a civil suit being settled out of court.

A Change.org petition set up by an organization called Women & Allies called on animation studio GKIDS, which sponsors the festival with the Annecy International Film Festival and Variety, to remove Bryant from this weekend’s proceedings. As of this writing, the petition has 141 signatures.

“In light of the #MeToo movement, there has been little to no recourse for Kobe Bryant’s actions of sexual assault,” reads the petition. “We demand that GKIDS, Variety, & Annecy revoke their complicity in enabling a sexual predator to continue a life without any accountability both as an individual and a celebrity.”

“On its website ‘Animation Is Film’ specifically states one of their primary purposes is to champion and support women filmmakers. It’s time to turn these words into action. […] Keeping Kobe Bryant on the jury sets a precedent of lenience for sexual criminals and further undermines the visibility and respect that victims of harassment and assault deserve.”

In a statement, GKIDS said that Bryant had been removed from the jury “to keep our collective energies focused on the films, the participating filmmakers, and our festival attendees.”

“I was honored to have been originally invited by Animation is Film to serve on the 2018 Jury, and am disappointed to no longer serve in that capacity,” Bryant said in his own statement. “This decision further motivates me and my commitment to building a studio that focuses on diversity and inclusion in storytelling for the animation industry. I remain focused on changing the world in positive ways through diverse stories, characters, and leadership, in order to inspire the next generation.”

Related stories from TheWrap:

Film Academy Nixes Kobe Bryant for Membership Despite Oscar Win

Kobe Bryant: Oscar Makes Me Feel a 'Greater Sense of Responsibility' to Bring Diversity to Hollywood

Kobe Bryant Rape Accusation From 2003 Resurfaces After Oscar Nomination

Animation Is Film Festival Announces Opening Night Movie, Competition Titles, Jury

Mamoru Hosoda’s “Mirai” will open the second Animation Is Film Festival, slated for Oct. 19-21 at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre. Hosoda will attend the screening, which will be the North American premiere of the film, which debuted in Cannes. “Mirai”…

Mamoru Hosoda’s “Mirai” will open the second Animation Is Film Festival, slated for Oct. 19-21 at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre. Hosoda will attend the screening, which will be the North American premiere of the film, which debuted in Cannes. “Mirai” is also among the initial films in competition announced by the festival, produced by independent […]

Animation Is Film Festival Touts Indie Oscar Contenders

The second annual confab will premiere with “Mirai” from GKids and take place October 19 – 21 at the TCL Chinese in Hollywood.

Animation

The second-annual Animation Is Film Festival (October 19 – 21) will once again offer a diverse range of indie features from Asia, Europe, South America, and North America. Just as last year’s festival drew many animation fans to the TCL Chinese in Hollywood, this iteration will impact the Oscar race because of the prestigious exposure.

Produced by GKids in partnership with Annecy International Animation Film Festival, Variety and Fathom Events, the festival will offer more than 30 titles, including 11 films in competition. AIF kicks off with the premiere of GKids’ Oscar contender, “Mirai,” a time-traveling story about a brother and sister from acclaimed Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda. There will also be a four-film retrospective of Hosodo’s work.

AIF will additionally spotlight footage from Disney’s Oscar contender, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” (November 21), and Sony’s highly-anticipated “Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse” (December 14). There will also be a 20th anniversary screening of DreamWorks’ “Prince of Egypt” (which won the Oscar for Best Original Song, “When You Believe”).

“For film lovers and creators who can’t travel to Annecy or the other major animation events, AIF brings the best animated filmmaking from around the world under one roof,” stated GKids CEO Eric Beckman, “for a long weekend of big-screen binge-watching, filmmaker Q&As, red carpet premieres, studio events, workshops and parties.”

“Tito and the Birds”

The selection of juried films in competition will include “Mirai (opening November 30) along with such Oscar hopefuls as Sony Pictures Classics’ recently acquired “Ruben Brandt, Collector,” a psychological mystery about the theft of famous paintings from Hungarian director Milorad Krstic (a November release); and Shout! Studios’ “Tito and the Birds,” about an epidemic of fear from Brazilian directors Gabriel Bitar, Andre Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg (a fall release).

Other juried film include “Another Day of Life,” a drama from Poland/Spain about the Angola Civil War (directed by Raul de la Fuente and Damian Nenow); “Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles,” a stranger than fiction story from Spain featuring the surrealist filmmaker (directed by  Salvador Simo); “Funan,” a drama from Belgium/France/Cambodia about a mother trying to keep her family together during the horror of the Khmer Rouge regime (directed by Denis Do); “I Want to Eat Your Pancreas,” about the unraveling of a secret diary from Japanese director Shin’ichiro Ushijima); “Okko’s Inn,” about a young girl befriended by a ghost after the death of her parents from Japanese director Kitaro Kosaka); “Pachamama,” an adventure from Argentina/France about reclaiming a town’s stolen treasure (directed by Juan Antin); “Penguin Highway,” about a boy confronted by stranger things from Japanese director Hiroyasu Ishida); and “Seder-Masochism,” about a matriarchal interpretation of the traditional Passover Seder from acclaimed indie director Nina Paley (“Sita Sings the Blues”).

Chairing the jury once again will be Variety chief critic Peter Debruge. Other members include IndieWire Editor at Large Anne Thompson; directors Henry Selick (“Coraline,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas”), Dean DeBlois (DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon” trilogy), Jennifer Yuh Nelson (DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda” sequels), and Jorge Gutierrez (“The Book of Life”); Oscar winner and former Lakers legend Kobe Bryant (“Dear Basketball”); Allison Abbate (Executive Vice President, Warner Animation Group); and Melissa Cobb (VP, Kids and Family, Netflix).

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Gravitas Nabs ‘What Still Remains’; Gkids Acquires ‘MFKZ’

Gravitas Ventures has secured the North American distribution rights to What Still Remains, a post-apocalyptic thriller from Strike the Sun Entertainment. Josh Mendoza wrote and directed the film, which stars Lulu Antariksa (T@gged), Colin O’Donoghue (…

Gravitas Ventures has secured the North American distribution rights to What Still Remains, a post-apocalyptic thriller from Strike the Sun Entertainment. Josh Mendoza wrote and directed the film, which stars Lulu Antariksa (T@gged), Colin O'Donoghue (Once Upon a Time), and Mimi Rogers (Ginger Snaps). It follows a young woman (Antariksa) struggling to survive in a world long-since destroyed by disease. But when she accepts an invitation from a lone traveler (O'Donoghue)…

‘Princess Mononoke’ Original Japanese Trailer Restored Ahead of Film’s Return to the Big Screen — Watch

Hayao Miyazaki’s animated classic is returning to U.S. theaters at the end of July for three nights only.

GKIDS and Fathom Events are celebrating the upcoming big screen return of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” by re-releasing the movie’s original 1997 Japanese trailer. The clip runs one minute and has only been updated with new graphics converting the original Japanese into English text.

“Princess Mononoke” is set in Muromachi Japan and follows a prince who gets involved in the struggle between the gods of a forest and the humans who consume its resources. The film’s original Japanese version and an English-dubbed version featuring the voices of Gillian Anderson, Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Billy Bob Thornton will both be playing U.S. theaters.

“Princess Mononoke” will hit select theaters across the country for three days only as part of STUDIO GHIBLI FEST 2018: Sunday July 22, Monday, July 23, and Wednesday, July 25. Watch the vintage trailer below. Tickets can be purchased online by visiting the official Fathom Events or GKIDS websites.

Bill Bailey, Matthew Goode, Adrian Edmonson, Celia Imrie Set For ‘Big Bad Fox’ Voice Cast

Gkids and Studiocanal have enlisted a host of Brit actors to voice the English-language version of animated family feature The Big Bad Fox And Other Tales.
Bill Bailey (Hot Fuzz), Adrian Edmonson (War & Peace), Matthew Goode (Downton Abbey), Celia …

Gkids and Studiocanal have enlisted a host of Brit actors to voice the English-language version of animated family feature The Big Bad Fox And Other Tales. Bill Bailey (Hot Fuzz), Adrian Edmonson (War & Peace), Matthew Goode (Downton Abbey), Celia Imrie (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), Justin Edwards (The Thick Of It), comedian Phil Jupitus and Giles New (Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) will lend their voices to the story of an unusual farm which is…

Gkids Celebrates 10th Anniversary at Annecy

ANNECY, France —  If the animated art and family film distribution business remains as lively as the 10th anniversary celebration of Gkids, the emblematic U.S. distributor, held at the Annecy Festival, then it will be in very good health indeed. …

ANNECY, France —  If the animated art and family film distribution business remains as lively as the 10th anniversary celebration of Gkids, the emblematic U.S. distributor, held at the Annecy Festival, then it will be in very good health indeed. Not that the business’ prospects are negative at all. The Gkid 10th anni party proved […]

Gkids Reunites With Fathom Events In Five-Film Deal Starting With July ‘Fireworks’ – CinemaCon

EXCLUSIVE: Gkids is expanding its relationship with event-cinema company Fathom Events with a deal that will see five more new titles from the animation distributor hitting Fathom screens in the U.S. in 2018. The two companies previously pacted on the …

EXCLUSIVE: Gkids is expanding its relationship with event-cinema company Fathom Events with a deal that will see five more new titles from the animation distributor hitting Fathom screens in the U.S. in 2018. The two companies previously pacted on the premiere of Studio Ponoc’s Mary and the Witches Flower as well as on showing product from Japan's Studio Ghibli. The new deal will kick off with Akiyuki Shinbo's Fireworks, the Toho pic that is getting a nationwide release…

Film News Roundup: Japanese Animated ‘Fireworks’ Gets North American Release

In today’s film news roundup, Japanese animated film “Fireworks” will be released in North America, a Rose Marie documentary gets bought and Casey Cott gets a movie role. ACQUISITIONS GKids has acquired the North American distribution rights to Japanese animated drama “Fireworks,” from director Nobuyuki Takeuchi and general director Akiyuki Shinbo. The deal for the […]

In today’s film news roundup, Japanese animated film “Fireworks” will be released in North America, a Rose Marie documentary gets bought and Casey Cott gets a movie role. ACQUISITIONS GKids has acquired the North American distribution rights to Japanese animated drama “Fireworks,” from director Nobuyuki Takeuchi and general director Akiyuki Shinbo. The deal for the […]

Gkids Acquires Animated ‘Fireworks’ From Japan’s Toho For Summer U.S. Bow

Gkids has acquired North American rights to Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom, an animated film from directors Akiyuki Shinbo and Nobuyuki Takeuchi that bowed last year in Japan. The distributor, a perennial Oscar nominee in the Animated Feature category including The Breadwinner this year, is eyeing a summer 2018 release.
The pic, which has grossed $26 million in Japan since its August 2017 bow, is produced by Shaft and Genki Kawamura (Your Name)…

Gkids has acquired North American rights to Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom, an animated film from directors Akiyuki Shinbo and Nobuyuki Takeuchi that bowed last year in Japan. The distributor, a perennial Oscar nominee in the Animated Feature category including The Breadwinner this year, is eyeing a summer 2018 release. The pic, which has grossed $26 million in Japan since its August 2017 bow, is produced by Shaft and Genki Kawamura (Your Name)…

Gkids Acquires ‘Mirai’ From Japan’s Studio Chizu For Fall U.S. Release

Gkids, in the Animated Feature Oscar race again this year with The Breadwinner, has acquired North American distribution rights to Mirai, written and directed by Mamoru Hosada from Japan’s Studio Chizu. The distributor will release the pic theatrically in the fall in both the original Japanese language and an English-dubbed version.
The plot revolves around Kun, who feels forgotten by his family when his little sister Mirai arrives. Running away from home, he stumbles…

Gkids, in the Animated Feature Oscar race again this year with The Breadwinner, has acquired North American distribution rights to Mirai, written and directed by Mamoru Hosada from Japan’s Studio Chizu. The distributor will release the pic theatrically in the fall in both the original Japanese language and an English-dubbed version. The plot revolves around Kun, who feels forgotten by his family when his little sister Mirai arrives. Running away from home, he stumbles…

Gkids Acquires ‘Satellite Girl And Milk Cow’ & Launches Trailer

Gkids has beamed up North American rights to Satellite Girl and Milk Cow, an anime feature from Korean writer-director Chang Hyung-yun. The film has begun streaming on VRV Select and it set for a theatrical and home video bow in the summer.
The story goes something like this: An out-of-commission satellite picks up a lovelorn ballad on her radio antenna and descends to Earth to find the source of such sincere emotions. But on the way she is caught in the crossfire of a…

Gkids has beamed up North American rights to Satellite Girl and Milk Cow, an anime feature from Korean writer-director Chang Hyung-yun. The film has begun streaming on VRV Select and it set for a theatrical and home video bow in the summer. The story goes something like this: An out-of-commission satellite picks up a lovelorn ballad on her radio antenna and descends to Earth to find the source of such sincere emotions. But on the way she is caught in the crossfire of a…

Film News Roundup: Gkids Acquires Three Masaaki Yuasa Films

In today’s film news roundup, Gkids buys three Masaaki Yuasa films, Gravitas acquires “5 Doctors,” and Straight Up Films adds to its executive film team. ACQUISITIONS Gkids has acquired the North American distribution rights for three animated films from director Masaaki Yuasa — 2004’s “Mind Game” and 2017’s “Lu Over the Wall” and “The Night […]

In today’s film news roundup, Gkids buys three Masaaki Yuasa films, Gravitas acquires “5 Doctors,” and Straight Up Films adds to its executive film team. ACQUISITIONS Gkids has acquired the North American distribution rights for three animated films from director Masaaki Yuasa — 2004’s “Mind Game” and 2017’s “Lu Over the Wall” and “The Night […]

Gkids Acquires Three Anime Pics From Director Masaaki Yuasa

Feature animation producer-distributor Gkids has acquired North American distribution rights to three films from Japanese director Masaaki Yuasa. They include his two most recent titles, 2017’s Lu Over the Wall and Night Is Short, Walk on Girl along with 2004’s Mind Game.
It will release all three films in their original Japanese language and also will create a dubbed English version of Lu Over the Wall that will premiere at Sundance this month.
“Gkids is incredibly…

Feature animation producer-distributor Gkids has acquired North American distribution rights to three films from Japanese director Masaaki Yuasa. They include his two most recent titles, 2017’s Lu Over the Wall and Night Is Short, Walk on Girl along with 2004’s Mind Game. It will release all three films in their original Japanese language and also will create a dubbed English version of Lu Over the Wall that will premiere at Sundance this month. "Gkids is incredibly…

‘The Big Bad Fox And Other Tales’ Directors On Animals As Evergreen Storytelling Subjects

From French directors Benjamin Renner and Patrick Renner, GKIDs animated release The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales is a collection of animal-driven folktales with its own delightfully particular sense of humor. Framed as a series of plays in which animals are the players, and replete with clever visual gags, the film uses animal tropes and stereotypes to comment on human foibles.
Stemming from the imagination of Renner, who wrote several graphic novels featuring animal…

From French directors Benjamin Renner and Patrick Renner, GKIDs animated release The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales is a collection of animal-driven folktales with its own delightfully particular sense of humor. Framed as a series of plays in which animals are the players, and replete with clever visual gags, the film uses animal tropes and stereotypes to comment on human foibles. Stemming from the imagination of Renner, who wrote several graphic novels featuring animal…

‘Mary And the Witch’s Flower’ Trailer: Gkids Toon Features Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent & ‘The BFG’s Ruby Barnhill

Gkids has amassed nine Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature since 2009 including one for My Life as a Zucchini last year and two in 2016 — but it has yet to take home the hardware. Now comes the first English-language trailer for its latest pic, featuring the voices of Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent and The BFG star Ruby Barnhill.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower hails from Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the Oscar-nominated animator behind Studio Ghibli’s Spirited AwayHowl’s Movin…

Gkids has amassed nine Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature since 2009 including one for My Life as a Zucchini last year and two in 2016 — but it has yet to take home the hardware. Now comes the first English-language trailer for its latest pic, featuring the voices of Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent and The BFG star Ruby Barnhill. Mary and the Witch’s Flower hails from Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the Oscar-nominated animator behind Studio Ghibli’s Spirited AwayHowl's Movin…

How ‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ Builds on Studio Ghibli DNA

After “The Breadwinner,” the debut animated feature from Studio Ponoc offers GKids’ best prospect for a second Oscar nomination.

Animation

With its debut feature, “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” Studio Ponoc in Japan offered a new kind of anime fantasy drawn from the DNA of Studio Ghibli. And for founder and former Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura (“The Tale of The Princess Kaguya,” “When Marnie Was There”) and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (“The Secret World of Arrietty, “When Marnie Was There”), the experience of making it was a new adventure.

“‘When Marnie Was There’ was a very quiet film about a little girl set in a small village without much action,” said Nishimura. “I wanted a story with a very active, energetic girl with lots of emotion and dynamic action.” And in speaking of his director, who drew dynamic animation for Hayao Miyazaki, “I saw that as a very large weapon to be able to feature in a new film.”

Starting From Scratch

Based on Mary Stewart’s novel, “The Little Broomstick,” the film concerns a bored little English girl who’s transformed into a witch with the discovery of a magical flower. Her destiny, it turns out, is to free caged, tormented animals that are part of a misguided experiment at a mysterious wizarding school. However, after Mary loses her bewitching powers, she’s forced to reinvent herself.

On their own and without the resources and budget of Ghibli films, Nishimura and Yonebayashi were forced to reinvent themselves as well. Still, with a talented group of 450 artists (many from Ghibli), hand-drawn ingenuity, and the use of open source animation software for fantasy sequences, they achieved a visually compelling movie that honors the Ghibli tradition.

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower”

“The original story had a very careful and reverent depiction of nature,” said Yonebayashi. “And so I wanted to make sure I show that. And for the fantasy sequences, it was an imaginary world. But in order to get those aspects in, even with our low budget, we went to Britain to look at actual natural scenes there to reference. I wanted to have a real contrast between the real world of the Red Manor and our college, which had its own [mechanical] garden but has all these strange creatures in there as well.”

Additionally, a great deal of effort went into the design and animation of 30 creatures that are transformed into monsters. But there were important aesthetic decisions to consider beyond the cool factor. “It was difficult to figure out how much to keep them animal-like and how much to make them creature,” Yonebayashi said. “If they became too creature-like in their transformed state, then the audience might start sympathizing with them. And so we had to keep that line so that when they transformed back into their animal reality, we welcomed them.”

Change and Transformation

However, the director’s favorite character was the broomstick. “At first it’s sort of an untamed horse that does whatever it wants,” he said. “And then gradually it becomes more of a partner for Mary to be able to work with her. So that change and transformation was fun.”

Meanwhile, it required a large number of background drawings to get the motion of Mary’s flying to look believable (assisted by some digital clouds). But the hardest animation of all was a crowd scene with several hundred animals. “For just a few seconds of film, the animators took two months to draw those scenes,” said Yonebayashi.

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower”

For the filmmakers, though, the movie offers a hopeful message of change that’s intended to be empowering for kids and adults alike. And as they embark on a series of shorts before producing their second feature, it’s a promising start for Studio Ponoc.

GKids and Fathom Events will premiere “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” theatrically on January 18 in both its Japanese-language version and English dub (starring Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, and Jim Broadbent). This will be followed by a wider North American release starting January 19.

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‘Birdboy: The Forgotten Children’ Review: A Dark Animated Delight About Cute Animals, Hard Drugs, and Hope for the Future

This surreal, mesmerizing Spanish cartoon feels like a natural segue in a conversation started by the likes of “Maus” and “Watershed Down.”

The opening moments of “Birdboy: The Forgotten Children” unfold like an urgent warning to any parents who might think that this is just another kid-friendly animated film about cute animals who learn valuable lessons. “The future is past,” a voice insists from the darkness, speaking in Spanish and accompanied by exclamatory subtitles (an English-language version is also available). “The garbage is the present. Blood is the law!” From there, we’re hurled through the history of a once-vibrant storybook world, a colorful idyll where bunnies and mice and all sorts of creatures lived in harmony until a nuclear disaster scorched the island and turned its survivors against each other.

Adorable silhouettes bleed into red and black monsters, and the nice sounds of nature are replaced by a queasy synth score that sounds like it was borrowed from “The Neon Demon.” Within minutes, we’re introduced to a young mouse named Dinky (whose foster parents shame her with a Baby Jesus figurine that cries blood), a pre-teen rabbit who’s haunted by demonic voices, and a fascistic pair of police dogs who shoot anyone who steps out of line. By the time we’re formally introduced to the title character — a moon-headed chick who wears a tattered business suit and silently mourns his murdered father — it barely even registers that he’s a heroin addict.

A hand-drawn head-trip directed by Alberto Vázquez and Pedro Rivero — and adapted from Vázquez’s graphic novel, “Psychonauts” — “Birdboy” thrives on the disconnect between the innocence of its fluffy heroes and the despair of the life they’ve inhabited. And yet, the film is never the least bit smug about the subversiveness of its conceit; there’s absolutely no attempt at shock value. On the contrary, this dark and mesmerizing import feels like a natural segue in a conversation started by the likes of “Maus” and “Watership Down,” Vázquez and Rivero using anthropomorphic critters to grapple with subjects that might be painful to confront directly. It weaponizes their innocence without letting it go.

“Birdboy” doesn’t have a plot so much as it does a drifting premise, but the main thread that wends its way through the film’s scattered 76-minute running time involves Dinky and her friends trying to escape their island home. Their haphazard journey is interrupted by a number of strange asides, each a bit more nightmarish than the last; one sequence, in which a drug-dealing swine named Pig Boy confronts the giant spider who lives underneath his dying addict mother, borders on a “Twin Peaks” level of terror. Every character we meet is in crisis, even the inflatable rubber duck that Dinky hopes will carry away from this hell (levity comes in the form of a Hertzfeldt-esque alarm clock who was programmed to feel pain). In a movie that manages to feel both overloaded and spread too thin, it helps that there’s always something new to fear and/or pity.

On that note, it also helps that “Birdboy” employs a slightly different style for each of its many different parts. The young characters seem plucked from a fairy tale, while the older ones — particularly the haggard rats who live on the dark side of the island and fight each other over scraps of trash — look like old Disney cartoons who aged out of the spotlight and fell on (very) hard times. “Not everything with a body is alive,” someone warns. The cumulative effect is that of a broken world in which kids are conditioned for a violent type of self-sufficiency and trained to think of everyone as their enemies.

Each societal malady becomes an excuse to restrict freedoms and encourage forgetting; nobody can remember why Birdboy is in exile, and it seems like Dinky and her friends are the last generation that might even vaguely remember a better yesterday. Whether explicitly grappling with the Spanish heroin epidemic that bled through Vázquez’s childhood, or more broadly likening a child’s loss of innocence to a toxic cloud settling in over Eden, “Birdboy” creates a tortured dreamscape that’s riddled with golden pearls of hope.

This is a beautiful film, and an ugly one, and the tension between those two sides doesn’t abate until the very last scene. But even (or especially) at its most frightening, “Birdboy” flaps its wings and tries to fly true, urging viewers of all ages to create a new world instead of nesting in the rotten one they inherited. As abstract as this story can be, its miasma of morbid imagery sells that core idea with all the clarity of a fable. These characters may have been born into a sea of garbage, but they don’t have to die there.

Grade: B+

“Birdboy: The Forgotten Children” opens in theaters on December 15th.