As eclectic and inventive a bunch as the can-do gang of playthings in the Toy Story movies, the features and shorts assembled for the New York International Children’s Film Festival share an exuberant refusal to condescend to their target viewers—meaning that adults have a place in the audience whether or not they’re escorted by any short people.
Two newly redubbed animated features anchor the proceedings. Hot on the hooves of Princess Mononoke, anime king Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky opens the festival at the DGA Theater with its tale of orphans protecting a floating island while pursued by sinister military operatives and screwball pirates. Castle is part of a generous Japanimation program, including several Miyazakis and a sampler of Osamu Tezuka’s shorts, and reaching back to Panda and the Magic Serpent (1958), the first feature-length anime and the first in color.
The other world-premiere English dub is the stunning Kirikou and the Sorceress, which folds several West African folk tales into the adventures of the little warrior Kirikou, who springs Athena-like from his mother’s womb ready to do battle with the fearsome sorceress Karaba. The narrative constantly surprises, aided by richly textured characters and a dense array of thematic concerns—before he can save his village, Kirikou must confront the origins of evil and the nature of desire, as well as snarling boars and malevolent, anthropomorphic trees out of Sleepy Hollow. Though nothing on director Michel Ocelot’s spare, limpid canvas is as grisly as it first seems, the movie, like its hero, doesn’t hesitate to enter dark, forbidding territory: There’s (supposed) cannibalism, a village gets torched, and it’s not-so-obliquely suggested that Karaba’s wrath stems from a brutal rape. Probably the littlest patrons should stay away, though that’s what taller naysayers tell Kirikou throughout his quest.
The festival’s short-film selection takes narrower demographic aim; it sorts an overflowing toy box of finely crafted small pleasures into four different lineups for age groups from toddlers to teenagers. The far-flung standouts include: the Netherlands’ Sientje (ages 3-6), a hilarious minimalist rendering of toddler bipolarity; Patterns (8-14), a concise, empathic Irish live-action sketch of the relationship between an autistic boy and his younger brother; Silence (8-14), a devastatingly restrained, first-person animation of a Holocaust testimony; and the too-short short Rex the Runt—A Holiday in Vince (12-18), in which a clay-animated British family goes for a vacation in their deranged dog’s brain, spoofing The Fantastic Voyage via Being John Malkovich. One voyager asks poor Vince, “I bet you’d like to see yourself from the inside, wouldn’t ya?”