by Elliot Davies
The 2016 Derby Film Festival has been magnificent. We’re going to see it out in style by watching as much animation as we can.
When writing about Quatermass & The Pit and Green Room, I took mild umbrage with the idea that Fantastiq should describe itself as a horror, sci-fi, and fantasy festival.
“This is a horror festival!” I said. “It’s horror to the core. If you cut this festival, it bleeds horror.”
And now I feel bad.
For when introducing April & The Extraordinary World (2015), an animated wonder that’s sci-fi to the core, festival programmer Adam Marsh touched upon the fact that the Fantastiq programme is dominated by horror.
Turns out there’s a very good reason for this: There’s just so much good horror out there! Every year, hundreds of ne’erdowells across the world redefine the very idea of horror, and the majority of them do so on a shoestring budget. And yet, sci-fi and fantasy remain the reserve of the big studios.
Is this because sci-fi and fantasy is harder to do on a budget? Who knows? But the fact remains: Most of the interesting, independent, and forward-thinking genre films that are produced these days can be broadly classed as horror. We’re possibly in the midst of what will one day be described as a “golden age”; a “renaissance”.
So until the world’s ambitious independent film makers start thinking in terms of sci-fi and fantasy, it seems that genre film festivals will continue to be dominated by horror. That’s not necessarily a sorry state of affairs. It’s just that…well. One does grow tired of nightmares.
Which is why April & The Extraordinary World feels like such a breath of fresh air. It’s outlandish sci-fi! It’s ANIMATED outlandish sci-fi! Rather than rubbing your lacerated face in the innards of the slain, it nurtures your dreams and kindles the imagination!
This is an adaptation of Tati’s graphic novel of the same name. It’s been brought by Christian Desmares (Persepolis; Oggy & The Cockroaches) and Franck Ekinci (The Adventures of Tintin). It’s a gorgeous steampunk fantasy set in an alternative 1941. The Franco-Prussian war never happened. Humanity never moved on from using coal, so we soon used up the Earth’s entire supply. The world now relies on charcoal, so the various superpowers are locked in an eternal war for control over Canada’s precious forests.
There are almost no trees, and the countryside has been stripped bare. The sky is a constant smoggy grey, all buildings are stained with soot, and everyone seems to have a chronic hacking cough. Also, all the world’s scientists have gone missing, so human progress has ground to a halt.
It’s a grim vision of crushing industrialisation, of a world gone rotten that’s on the verge of an energy crisis. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the film manages to maintain a consistently lighthearted and uplifting tone.
How do they pull it off? With a combination of slapstick humour – even the most threatening of villains might still be described as “bumbling” – and a cast of endearing heroes who are earnestly trying to make the world a better place.
Our hero April comes from a family of scientists who are working on some kind of super serum. They intend to eradicate death and disease. But so far they’ve only succeeded in making a few hyper-intelligent animals. Such as Darwin, April’s beloved talking cat. Darwin’s a hoot.
But the world’s scientists are being systematically hunted down, remember. And one day that fateful knock finally comes to April’s door, kickstarting an adventure that spans decades.
April & The Extraordinary World never stops moving. And just when you think it’s revealed all of its tricks, out it comes again with another breathtaking vista, and another stunning set piece. I shan’t say any more, because a big part of the thrill is in allowing yourself to be taken along for the ride and freshly enchanted by every new turn this magical story takes.
But that’s not to say that this adventure wouldn’t bear repeat viewings. This is one of those animated masterpieces where, no exaggeration, you could freeze frame the action at any point and spend hours just drinking up the detail.
The cityscapes are particularly enthralling. And because this is a steampunk fantasy, there’s not a single corner that doesn’t contain some kind of fascinating mechanism that’s hypnotic when in motion.
And now here we are. The final screening of the 2016 Derby Film Festival. And it’s a weighty one! This Is Not A Cartoon (2016) is a programme of six animated shorts from across the world. There’s a mix of styles and moods, but they all seem to play on certain themes – thoughts, ideas, perception, and memory.
Panic! (2015) kicks off proceedings. This is a hysterical short from the Netherlands in which a young woman completely fails to have a nice day at the beach, because she can’t stop worrying about the impending disaster that’s surely brewing at home. It’s laugh out loud funny. I get that they called this programme This Is Not A Cartoon in order to make it clear that animation deserves your respect, but come on guys. Panic! is definitely a cartoon. And that’s not a bad thing at all.
Carn (2012) is a brief and brutal fable that has the same charged atmosphere that you might get in an Angela Carter story. We see a young boy lost in the snow. He’s certainly going to die. But a bleeding wolf offers salvation on one condition – that he looks after her cubs. The boy accepts, but doesn’t keep up his side of the deal. It doesn’t end well.
Tea With The Dead (2014) is done in a sort of cubist watercolour style. It looks like a moving children’s book. It details the life of Frank, an Irish mortician who’s taken to having a nice cup of tea and a friendly chat with his cadavers once he’s finished embalming them.
It sounds grim, but it’s lovely. It appears to use the classic Aardman technique, in that real recordings of real conversations with real people have been brought to life with animation. It features five such conversations, and each is as quietly devastating as the last.
We meet a woman who describes her tracking down and meeting her long-lost maternal mother. We meet a man whose attempt to end his lonely life is interrupted by the very woman he’ll go on to marry. Another man describes his father’s final days battling with cancer, while another woman describes the horrifically traumatic birth of her twins. She was told that they wouldn’t last the night, but they recently celebrated their joint 40th.
Finally, we hear Frank’s story. It’s told in song. By his wife. And it’s…
…the problem is, Tea With The Dead can get a tad heavy handed. These stories are self-evidently tragic yet life-affirming, yet the music essentially DEMANDS that you FEEL. And it WORKS, damn you, it WORKS!
That’s not exactly a criticism. But it would be interesting to see how this one would work if it trod a slightly more subtle path – if the stories were allowed to be told on their own terms.
Also, given that each story was framed in exactly the same way suggests that this one was intended to be watched in an episodic manner. It would definitely go down better in that way. Because at 33 minutes long, Tea With The Dead often felt strained and repetitive. And even something this sincere can feel more than a little mawkish when it so effectively yanks at your heartstrings every six minutes or so.
Wackatdooo (2014) is a frenzied Canadian tribute to the great John Kricfalusi in which a cat, bored of his job, finds solace in hot jazz. Imagine Stimpy’s descent into Jerry’s fantastic bellybutton world, but with a riotous swing jazz soundtrack instead of the acid rock.
Fulfilament (2015) is a beautiful stop motion piece that follows a thought’s journey as it travels through the brain. For a thought to become an idea requires a trying quest across time and space. It’s like Inside-Out as performed by the cast of Wall-E, and like all the best animation, it was packed with the sort of clever little details that suggest a fervent mind in full-swing. For example, we’re shown one room in which a phallic lightbulb was forced into a cavity once every seven seconds. Hmn.
Fulfilament’s director Rhiannon Evans was kind enough to stick around to field our questions. I asked her about the music and the sound design, both of which proved vital in shaping this surreal world. She revealed that, though she loved the finished project, she was a little displeased with the music. Yes, it effectively told the story. And yes, without it, the film felt empty. But at the same time, she felt that the overall atmosphere created was a little too childish.
Maybe one day we’ll get a director’s cut of Fulfilament. I’m not sure what Rhiannon has in mind, but a subtle change of tone would probably transform this adorable adventure into a Street of Crocodiles nightmare. It’d be great!
Finally – the very very last thing watched at this year’s festival! – we have Mr Madila or The Colour of Nothing (2015). Using a range of different animation styles, this one tells the story of a young animator’s encounter with a spiritual healer called Mr Madila.
He has a crude advert that promises to solve some of life’s most mundane problems. And yet, behind this obvious snake oil pitch is a mind capable of some unfathomably deep thoughts. Mr Madila thinks of the world on an atomic level. The titular colour of nothing is the blurry shape you see when you rub your eyelids over your closed eyes.
Mr Madila combines some truly profound ideas with some broad yet knowing humour. It’s an impressive balancing act rendered even more remarkable by the fact that it still manages to tell a complete and cohesive story, and it does so in less than nine minutes.
Hey look! I’ve rattled on for far too long again!
So let’s bring this report – and by extension, our coverage of the 2016 Derby Film Festival – to a close with some words from Mr Madila himself:
Everything is mostly nothing. Look closely and you can see all the little bits and pieces, and all the gaps in-between.
Thanks for reading.