The Secret of Kells, an Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature, tells the story of medieval monks who painstakingly create and shelter an illuminated manuscript in the face of invading barbarian hordes. It has a delicate visual charm; a mystical, meandering story; and no zingers. In other words, it's a children's film that very few children would harbor any desire to watch.
That's partly because they don't know about it. Unlike its fellow nominees Up, The Princess and the Frog, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Coraline, The Secret of Kells has no star voice actors or big-studio promotional machine behind it. Its relative obscurity is typical of the lopsided world of children's films. There's a huge market for the sort of loud and cheerful entertainment that features singing chipmunks, love-struck vampires or wisecracking species from the Pleistocene era; family films regularly top the annual box-office blockbuster lists. But there's almost nowhere for quieter, less merchandise-ready, sub-$150-million-grossing movies to go.
Into this breach has stepped the children's film festival. Like Sundance for squirts, they exist to promote and cultivate the entertainment version of beets: vitamin-rich sustenance kids are not quite sure they want to consume, no matter how delicious their parents say it is. Hipster-parent haven New York City supports a children's film festival (Brooklyn has its own), and they're popping up in other places as well. You'll mostly find them in big cities, but Asheville, N.C., had its first kids' film festival last year, as did Nantucket, Mass., and San Joaquin, Calif. Providence, R.I., just had its second festival, and Athens, Ga., will have its third in April.
Kells, which is quite delectable in its esoteric way, was shown at children's film festivals in Providence and New York before it was seen in theaters. After the New York screening, there was a question-and-answer session with the director for all the petite Pauline Kaels. Do kids care about asking directors questions? Unlikely, especially since Kells' target audience is around 6 years old.
But the organizers of the New York International Children's Film Festival (NYICFF), which runs through March 21, understand that their target is not really children. This year's special attraction, for example, is a retrospective of 50 years of French animation. For those who find that too trifling a diversion, there's In the Attic, touted as a "Soviet-era allegory" by "legendary Czech stop-motion animation master Jiri Barta." No? How about the U.S. premiere of the German Expressionist film Little White Lies, which foreshadows the arrival of fascism through the microcosm of one school ...
Hey, kids wait! Where are you going?
Heavy subject matter isn't the only thing that sets children's-film-festival offerings apart from their commercial cousins at the multiplex. NYICFF is also showing Fantastic Planet, which comes with a classic caveat for parents about "non-explicit alien nuptials." Mai Mai Miracle depicts third-graders and a toddler getting wasted on liqueur-filled chocolates. In The Old Lady and the Pigeons, there's an attempt at cannibalism. These are films for parents who prefer to expose their children to dystopia, dysfunction and dissolution rather than to Disney.
What the festivals occasionally lack in fun the six children I gathered wouldn't sit through more than 15 minutes of Mai Mai Miracle, and one of them is so alternative, she has a single letter for a first name they make up for in novelty. Almost nowhere else can adults, let alone kids, see such a collection of genuinely innovative and visually arresting short films.
Amuse-Bouche, the risibly titled animated French short-films program at the NYICFF, ran the gamut from an ingenious retelling of the fable of the lion and the mouse to Masques, a confrontation between two masks floating over a desert landscape. And if it's hard to imagine any children enjoying Black Tea, about a man's complicated feelings for a hot beverage, expressed in such terms as "microbes in the dental pulp," it's equally hard to imagine them not loving Oktapodi, a romantic comedy about octopuses. Mostly, however, the kids in the audience seemed nonplussed.
"[Masques] didn't even get interesting when they started fighting," said Toby Lawrence, 10, whose mother had hosted his birthday party at the festival last year. He further noted that while he would rather view these movies than go to school, he would just as soon have watched TV. Other children had different concerns. Said one as he left the screening: "Some of the films were O.K., but I don't get why it was called A Moose Bush. There was no moose." Maybe next year.