Falling in line with most other live events this year, the Annecy International Animation Film Festival — the most prestigious gathering dedicated entirely to the wide-ranging medium — was forced to go online. Though nothing can replace the energy of a festival attended in person, the silver lining was that fans and industry professionals had the opportunity to watch the majority of the films in competition and multiple panels, all of which would have taken place in the festival’s namesake French city, from anywhere the world.
This year, Annecy’s two feature film competitions, L’officielle and Contrechamp, as well as its Work In Progress selection, featured a mix of new projects from prominent directors and productions from regions that are rarely present on such an international stage. The dozen movies we’ve chosen to highlight in this list, most of which will be released in upcoming months, remind us how animation can tell stories in all genres and express complex historical, political, and philosophical themes as deftly and insightfully as live action does.
Legendary frontierswoman Calamity Jane, who didn’t abide by any restrictive 19th century gender norms, comes to life in French director Rémi Chayé’s stirring new movie, which pieces together a riveting Western from episodes of her defiant childhood wandering, working hard, and asserting her freedom. As seen in his previous effort, Long Way North, Chayé is fond of producing 2D animation with a simple graphic style, both in character design and backgrounds, and brightly saturated colors. The wide-open land of the Wild West functions as a stunning backdrop for this reimagining of the strong-willed, American heroine, enhanced by Florencia Di Concilio’s country-inspired score.
Continuing his prolific streak, visionary Japanese filmmaker and animator Masaaki Yuasa is currently in production on a new work set in 14th century Kyoto grounded on the classical dramatic art of Noh and biwa (lute) performances, which began during the Genpei War to honor fallen soldiers. The eponymous protagonist, Inu-Oh, is a skilled Noh performer who befriends Tomona, a blind biwa priest, and together they achieve the type of massive stardom equivalent to what we are familiar with in today’s pop culture. Manga author Taiyō Matsumoto (Tekkonkinkreet) serves as character designer to provide a singular aesthetic to this historical epic. (Presented as a Work In Progress)
GKIDS will release the Inu-Oh in the U.S. in 2021. Earlier this year, GKIDS released Yuasa’s most recent movie, Ride Your Wave.
Romanian director Anca Damian reinterprets the classic fable of Robinson Crusoe to discuss the refugee crisis facing Europe today in a surrealist animated project that also happens to be a musical. Ambitious on all fronts, The Island takes place in a futuristic world where augmented reality allows Robinson to interact with his surroundings on a more profound level. Rather than a paper diary, a tablet becomes his preferred instrument. Mutant animals and eccentric characters, whose movements were based on a professional dancer’s choreography, will surely make for a visual treat, anchored by a topical message. (Presented as a Work In Progress)
Damian’s most recent completed film Marona’s Fantastic Tale was just released in the U.S. on June 12 by GKIDS.
Produced entirely by Sandcastle Studios on the African island nation of Mauritius and South Africa’s Sunrise Productions, this CG escapade puts a sci-fi twist on the talking-animal trope. Originally on Earth to conquer the planet, a young alien, Fneep, begins to feels homesick and enlists the help of the jungle’s fauna, including a vivacious monkey, a grumpy hedgehog, and a kind-hearted elephant, to return to his family. Adapted from the television series of the same name, which was broadcast in over 200 countries around the world, Sandcastle’s first animated feature showcases impressive production value throughout.
Polish artist and animator Mariusz Wilczynski lets the audience into his subconscious through hand-drawn hallucinations. Melancholic childhood memories and morbid ruminations about mortality materialize as lines on paper, accompanied by a rock-infused score. Wilczynski introduces us to his parents, and in turn to himself as well, at different stages in their lives and constructs an abstract portrait of a family that’s as striking as it is bizarre. Lo-fi in the most masterful way and idiosyncratic to a fault in how it interprets the human condition (with all its cruelty and tenderness), Wilczynski’s debut feature won’t soon be erased from your psyche.
A co-production between Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the first animated from these nations to have an international presence, this seventh century saga follows 15-year-old knight Mohammed Bin Alkassim as he embarks on a dangerous mission to rescue women and children abducted by ruthless pirates. Blending 2D and 3D techniques, the team behind the film achieved a look that calls to mind classic Disney movies, even more so because of its use of memorable songs. Furthermore, the villain sidekicks, two clumsy djinns, will surely remind viewers of Pain and Panic from Hercules. It’s a culturally specific production with wide appeal.
Created in 1967 by manga artist Kazuhiko Katō (A.K.A. Monkey Punch), Lupin III is an astute thief descended from French writer Maurice Leblanc’s fictional gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, and his globetrotting adventures have been explored over multiple TV series and films, including Hayao Miyazaki’s 1979 directorial debut The Castle of Cagliostro. Now, over 50 years after its first appearance, the franchise evolves for a CG installment by writer-director Takashi Yamazaki. This time, the likable criminal and his dexterous accomplices must hunt down an enigmatic diary that could potentially resurrect the Third Reich if it were to fall into the wrong hands. Faced with the challenge of working with such a well-known property, Yamazaki embraces the 3D aesthetic to make it his own.
GKIDS will release the film in the U.S. later this year.
After tackling mental health in her debut feature Rocks in My Pockets, Latvia’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film in 2014, animator Signe Baumane examines the neurochemistry of love and the unjust societal standards imposed on women. Through sharp observations and two dozen songs, viewers will get to witness the introspective journey of Zelma, a young woman searching for a romantic partner in Soviet times. To attain her singular style, Baumane and her small team constructed physical sets similar to those used in stop-motion animation and photographed them. She then animated the 2D characters on paper before sending them to be colored in Riga, the Latvian capital. The final result is marvelous. (Presented as a Work In Progress)
Latin American animation has grown in quality and international prominence over the last decade, and this Chilean adventure from director German Acuña is one of the most accomplished features to come out of the region to date. Inspired by legends from the Mapuche indigenous people, it follows Nahuel, a boy who’s afraid of the sea until he comes across a magical book and must rescue his father from a malevolent wizard. Impressive action sequences and polished rural backgrounds resembling those in Studio Ghibli’s catalogue enrich this family-oriented story populated with fantastical creatures.
Part offbeat opera about a man whose nose leaves his body to become a powerful figure in 19th century St. Petersburg, and part satirical examination of how Stalin’s murderous regime imposed creative restrictions on music and art. Using a variety of mediums, from watercolors to cutouts on glass, veteran Russian director Andrey Khrzhanovskiy harnesses Nikolai Gogol’s surrealist short story The Nose and Dmitri Shostakovich’s adaption of that same work for the stage into an endlessly inventive and biting political satire. Anachronistic references, a nod to Battleship Potemkin, and live-action snippets that provide insight into the making of the film complete a dazzling package.
This computer-animated drama from Japanese director Eiji Han Shimizu captures the brutal conditions inside a North Korean prison camp. Our guide into this harsh underworld is 9-year-old Yo-han, who was sent there with his immediate family after his father’s disappearance. Through this young boy’s eyes we witness the worst and the best of humanity. Proving once again that the medium can do more than children’s content, the animation here helps the subject matter leave a strong emotional mark and enables the filmmaker to access an unseen reality. Simultaneously, we root for the hero’s escape and mourn for all the loss and tragedy he’s endured.
Two-time Oscar-nominated director Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) returns with a new Irish wonder based on Celtic folklore. Co-directed by Ross Stewart, the upcoming hand-crafted vision unfolds in 17th century Kilkenny, the same town where their studio Cartoon Saloon is located, and brings to life the legend of the wolfwalkers, people with the ability to leave their bodies at night and experience the world as wolves. Breathtaking animation draws us in to the friendship between Robyn, the daughter of a hunter bent on taming the land, and Mebh, a ferocious little girl who lives in the forest, and how the former rediscovers the wildness within her. Don’t be surprised if Wolfwalkers lands Moore a third Academy Award nod. (Presented as a Work In Progress)
Apple TV+ will release the film globally later this year.