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While juggling work and school at home — often without childcare — parents of toddlers may be looking for online media that stands apart from the branded content that dominates the toy aisle. They also might be looking for something the whole family can watch together. That’s where an independent film festival designed for kids, one that showcases storytelling from around the world with an emphasis on adaptations of children’s books, can step in.
Now in its 18th year, the typically in-person Belmont World Family Film Festival has extended its run time to 10 days, from January 15-24. The entirely virtual schedule includes feature-length and short fiction and documentary film programs, often followed by director discussions, and workshops on animation and film criticism. Most films can be streamed for 48 hours for the duration of the festival; however, a few have shorter windows of availability (consult the schedule here).
All of the festival’s programs have a suggested age range: 3-8, 5-10 and 8+. As a parent of kids ages 3 and 6, I decided to focus on programs for the 3-8 age group. One thing I’ve learned is that they like what they like. Not necessarily what I like for them. So, I asked this nonscientific sample of two to watch along with me. They did so without getting up to play dump truck or unicorns. I dare say we all thoroughly enjoyed the group assignment. In typical toddler fashion, they loved a few shorts so much they begged to watch them over. In typical parent fashion, I relented. With that in mind, the three of us wholly recommend all or any combination of the following programs.
Husky-voiced Ned may have seen a bit more of the forest than squeaky-voiced Mishka, but the two bears quickly strike up a friendship based on their shared love of haute forest cuisine. The six episodes (the first of a 26-episode season set for international broadcast later this year) roll by quickly as the duo disagree over what’s for lunch, tracks down exotic ingredients like truffles and weighs whether or not pandas have it better. (No, because bamboo and human hugs are yuck.) The plucky score and boldly colored cut-out animation reminiscent of Eric Carle make for a fresh, funny, kid-friendly take on “The Odd Couple.” The top pick from my little viewers, it left them wanting “More bears! More bears!” Maybe that’s because without moralizing, these stories show that despite differences, or because of them, Ned and Mishka are better together than alone. Or maybe it’s simply because tiny Mishka’s “sooooo cute.” Developed by animators Kateřina Karhánková and Alexandra Májová, the series is based on “Little Bear” books by Czech author Zbyněk Černík and shares a sensibility with Olivier Dunrea’s “Old Bear and His Cub.”
Set in mildly medieval Britain with castles, suits of armor and some weapon use and war play, “Zog” is the fairy tale origin story for “Zog and the Flying Doctors,” which flips the princess rescue trope on its duff. In “Zog,” a bumbling but affable orange dragon starts off as a tot who needs flying lessons and ends up as the winged ambulance for a princess doctor. The knight who pursues the princess becomes her lovely assistant. The trio then flies around the kingdom curing maladies and healing wounds with lots of home-brewed medicines. As a parent, I would’ve liked even more messing around with iconography (male characters still far outnumber female), but an underlying bonus is that these shorts establish doctoring as noble work. They might even be a helpful reference for discussions about the pandemic or when vaccinations or other medical visits come up. My savvy 6-year-old recognized that the characters had the “same eyes” as her Halloween favorite “Room on the Broom” from 2012. Sure enough, “Zog” is also based on a book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler (and, in this case, adapted by Max and Suzanne Lang). My lovely assistants gave “Zog” four thumbs up.
Animal Magnetism: Animated Shorts from Magnet Films
For originality, including unexpected storylines, experimental animation and sophisticated sound design, this is the program to choose. The collection of internationally made shorts with animal themes range between one and 12-minutes and are freestanding, except for the “Little Gray Wolfy” series of four, one set in each season (summer’s the best, of course). The ingenious use of musical and other sounds in the wordless “The Little Bird and the Bees” delights in the potential of the natural world without entirely diminishing its inherent dangers. (Lots of kids’ entertainment turns predators into friends. But yes, bees sting!) “Black and White” crafts a slightly reductive allegory about accepting difference. Yet, the striking technique of seeing the artist’s hand manipulate creatures on the page awed my 6-year-old (she asked to see it many times). She loved “Hedghog Spikney” for how the animals worked together as a team and disapproved of the ending for “The Fox and the Bird.” An octopus’ relentless pursuit of cleanliness in “Ink” made us all laugh, even on the third viewing. Many excellent examples of animated artistry here and a worthy watch for all ages.
Since 1920, Scholastic has produced some of the most memorable stories and indelible images for children. Belmont World Film started off by showing reels of shorts made by Scholastic’s animation arm, Weston Woods Studio, and has followed suit every year since. This sampling of some of the best and also newest shorts incudes classics like “Strega Nona” and her overflowing pasta pot and the big-footed monsters from “Where the Wild Things Are.” Those feet and sharp teeth didn’t agree with my 3-year-old. In fact, there was a clear (and inexplicable) generational divide on our couch. The kids preferred the 2020 releases like “The Very Impatient Caterpillar” about a chrysalis that can’t wait to become a butterfly and the advocacy-style PSA “Say Something.” I favored the oldies but goodies (especially “Doctor De Soto”), partly for the hints of danger and vintage hand-drawn animation and partly because the stories can’t be beat. Regardless, this whole program gets a hearty nod of approval.
No one orchestrates the highs and lows of emotions, including anger, desperation and utter joy, better than Mo Willems. He has cracked the elusive formula for humor as well as any other children’s book author. His animated shorts, many of which integrate real scenery, stand up to his books and add another layer: Willems narrates and sometimes his daughter and wife join in. While I adored “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale” and “Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity,” the sight of Trixie’s beloved bunny accidentally going into the wash deeply upset my 3-year-old. He rebounded well enough for the others, favoring “Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs” for the scene where Goldilocks jumps into bowls of pudding. The group is rounded out with “Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus,” “Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late” and “Hooray for Amanda and Her Alligator.” We say “hooray” to these shorts. You simply can’t go wrong with Willems.
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