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Children’s Film Festival is fueled by imagination

“Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart” (France)

“Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart” (France).

The Boston International Children’s Film Festival, now in its second year at the Museum of Fine Arts (through May 25), brings viewers deep into the trenches of childhood chaos. Some films depict kids with elaborate fantasy lives. Others show youngsters whose ideas or imaginations don’t mesh with the adult world.

In the American cartoon short “Borrowed Light,” a boy steals a city’s light bulbs so its citizens can appreciate the stars. In the live action short “Dingi,” a Bangladesh/German coproduction, devious boys seek revenge against boatmen who’ve prevented them from swimming in a Dhaka river. In “Anina,” an animated feature from Uruguay, the protagonist declares, “I’m 10 years old and I’m in deep trouble.”

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The fest’s seven features and four collections of shorts are presented in partnership with the 17th annual New York International Children’s Film Festival. Many give us kids (and cowboys, and ladybugs, and bears) behaving badly. Many also use pantomime and gibberish, the lingua franca of international kids animation, to convey their stories of subversion and naughtiness.

“Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants,” a French production combining real-life landscapes and CGI bugs, is told via insectoid sound effects. In the Brazilian “Boy and the World,” a collage-like phantasmagoria of adult-world color, pattern, and urban movement seen through the eyes of a boy, there’s barely a line of dialogue.

Animation fans should expect simplified and stylized art, not CG simulacra of fuzzy animals doing all the talking. The themes are thought-provoking and poetic, more storybook than “Toy Story.” For example, ostensibly concerning a trio of kids who discover an ancient bone, the marvelous Czech parable “The New Species” is really about how imagination can be quashed by adults.

Awards and celebrity connections touch a few of the shorts. “Tome of the Unknown” is by “Adventure Time” creative director Patrick McHale, and Elijah Wood lends his voice. “Mr. Hublot,” about a reclusive man whose life is changed by a robotic pet, won Luxembourgian director Laurent Witz this year’s Academy Award for best animated short. Sundance selected “The Big House,” from Yemen, about a boy sneaking into an empty mansion. Also, in the “Shorts for Tots” program designed for 3- to 6-year-olds, look for “I Want My Hat Back,” based on the popular picture book by Jon Klassen and featuring the raspy vocal talents of Daniel Pinkwater.

“Boy and the World” (Brazil).

Probably the most commercial film of the lot is the French feature “Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart,” a sort of “Frozen” for the Tim Burton and steampunk market. The look of the cartoon musical, about a boy implanted with a mechanical ticker, is about as close to Pixar as the festival gets. At the other extreme, the most laugh-out-loud (and least technologically advanced) entry might be “A Town Called Panic: The Christmas Log,” a hilarious stop-motion adventure starring plastic figurines of an Indian, a cowboy, and their father figure, a horse (yes, it’s that silly), all getting into trouble on Christmas Eve.

Cue the cartoons

Speaking of stop-motion, this weekend also launches another film program at the MFA, this one created by young artists themselves. The MFA’s annual Community Arts Initiative presents “Experiments in Animation,” an exhibit of cartoons by some 150 youths from eight Boston-area community centers. The kids were taught the art of animation — from flipbooks to hand-drawn walking characters to claymation — by Boston artist, animator, and museum educator Jake Fried. The show’s reception is Friday from 5-7 p.m. The Edward H. Linde Gallery (Gallery 168) will exhibit the films on monitors, along with some original artwork and a “process video,” through Oct. 13.

Even if they haven’t yet made a cartoon, kids can relate to the medium. “It’s part of their digital culture,” said Robert Worstell, the MFA’s head of community and studio arts. The animation project let the kids “riff” on the museum’s collection, from two-dimensional art to weather vanes and carousel animals. They then planned their own cartoons. Each student worked with Fried to animate clay figures and record voices and sound effects. Fried said his biggest challenge was patience.

“Animation is a time-consuming and labor-intensive medium,” he said in an e-mail. Stop-motion software on an iPad lets the children immediately see the results. “This helped them pick up the concepts quickly and showed them the ‘magic of animation,’ how small changes in movement when played back quickly made their art ‘come alive.’ ”

As luck would have it, to connect the two programs, a short animated film of Fried’s was accepted into the Children’s Film Festival. “The Deep End,” a hand-drawn work which combines ink, white-out, and coffee, is part of the “Heebie Jeebies: Spooky, Freaky, & Bizarre. . .” shorts collection.

For more information, go to www.mfa.org/film or call 800-440-6975.

Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com.
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