Hi-Tech and Low-Tech Duke It Out at Annecy

Nestled in the French Alps, on the shore of Lake Annecy and in the shadow of Mont Blanc, the sleepy town of Annecy has been invaded by animation lovers from around the world. Here, one could spend a whole week sitting on a park bench, staring out over the lake at the snow-capped peaks or sipping wine at one the many cafes and restaurants that line the riverside. But alas, there are cartoons to be watched, and a great diversity of material at that.

Nowhere is that diversity seen more than in the feature films selected for competition. Two of those films, screened last night, proved the perfect double bill. Where director Chris Delaporte’s Kaena, the Prophecy proves what computers can do in the hands of capable artists, director Roger Hawkins’ The Legend of the Sky Kingdom shows us what a few hands, simple tools and a whole lot of sheer will can produce.

In anticipation of the first evening screening in the feature category, an enthusiastic audience packed into the main theatre, where the films have to follow the uproarious applause that erupts when one of a fleet of paper airplanes manages to traverse the auditorium and alight on the stage below. Kaena, produced by Xilam, Studio Canal and Groupe TVA Inc., was definitely up to that challenge.

From frame one, the entirely CG sci-fi adventure grabs hold of the imagination and transports us to a world both beautiful and deadly. The action takes place on the floating world-tree known as Axis, a tangle of serpentine branches where villagers harvest sap to appease their gods. Those gods turn out to be another species, grotesque and visually stunning liquid beings that form out of the sap like twisted Mrs. Butterworths.  As the sap begins to dry up, these creatures are threatened with extinction and blame a glowing blue orb that came to rest in the branches in the aftermath of a space craft explosion. Only the sole survivor of that explosion knows the true nature of the orb and holds the key to salvation for a young rebel named Kaena and her people.

Trying to describe the imagery in Kaena is like attempting to put into words the lavishly illustrated cover of a science fiction paperback. While much of the film achives a fairly photo-real quality, the animators have also given it a sort of airbrushed look that keeps it firmly planted in the realm of animation rather than reaching for a live-action standard. Even the human characters are stylized so as not to emulate living actors.

Backing up the beautiful visuals in Kaena is an engrossing story packed with action and mystery. Rather than jetting across the galaxy from planet to planet, the action unfolds almost entirely on Axis with the filmmakers exploring every nook and cranny of that world.

While the humans, even Kaena, are largely uninterestinG, the supporting cast of creatures takes up the slack. The sap creatures transform into impressive beasts the villagers refer to as mauraders, and talking worms don mechanical suits that give them legs and wings. The worms also manage to offer comic relief without becoming annoying.

This achivement in computer animation comes to us as the Disney/Pixar CG feature Finding Nemo sets boxoffice records, making it hard to deny that at the moment digital is king. However, traditional animation is alive and well represented at Annecy. While it had only a fraction of Kaena‘s reported $20 million budget, The Legend of the Sky Kingdom has imagination to spare. Being tauted as the first junkamation feature, this 35mm stop-motion adventure from Zimbabwe was created entirely from recycled trash.

Produced by Phil Cunningham and his Sunrise Prods., the film follows three orphans who escape an underground prison and provoke the wrath of an evil emperor as they set out in search of the fabled paradise known as the Sky Kingdom.

More compelling than the story is the ingenious re-purposing of items that would otherwise be occupying space in a landfill. A sea of undulating sheet plastic becomes a tumultuous ocean, four diving flippers form a palm tree and our heroes are fashioned from wrenches, blocks of wood, mint tins and various other recognizable household products. In their journey, they encounter worthy adversaries such as a marching army of scissors and a bridge guardian made of sporting goods.

The animation is a bit clunky, but that’s exactly how one would expect junk to move if it were brought to life. The dozen or so animators have done an amazing job given their limited resources and manage to bring personality to their Frankenstein creations.

Unlike Kaena, which may be too scary for younger viewers, Sky Kingdom plays best to kids. As such, it runs a bit long but remains a remarkable achievement, the kind of film that inspires animators to get off their tails and just do it.

Also in competition in the feature category are The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Bear (L’enfant Qui Voulait un Ours) from Dansk Tegnefilm Produktion APS, Les Armateurs, France Television Distribution and director Jannik Hastrup; My Life as McDull from Lunchtime Prods., Bliss Distribution and director Toe Yuen ; and The Egg (L’Uovo) from Synthesis International, Future Film Festival and director Dario Picciau.

Tonight’s festivities include the premiere of Paramount’s The Rugrats Go Wild from Klasky Csupo and Nickelodeon Movies. For more information about Annecy and the films appearing at the festival, read the July issue of Animation Magazine.