Feed your kids the cinematic equivalent of fast food and that’s what they’ll come to crave.
“I call it my ‘Chicken Finger Manifesto,’ ” says Eric Beckman, founder and creative director of the New York International Children’s Film Festival. “If you raise your kids eating chicken fingers, all they’ll want to eat is chicken fingers.”
But if you expose young audiences to a sampling of film that is broader and more challenging than the mass-appeal sustenance one typically sees from Pixar, DreamWorks, or even PBS, they’ll come to appreciate more complex fare. They may even change their appetites.
That’s the filmic-culinary theory, and menu, on offer at the first-ever Boston International Children’s Film Festival coming to the Museum of Fine Arts Saturday through April 21. The program includes 10 feature films and three shorts programs from 13 countries, including Japan, France, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. The festival is a smaller version of the New York event, North America’s largest film festival for children and teens, that was held in March and featured more than 100 movies.
But this cinematic meal comes with a warning. Not every film in the Boston lineup has a happy ending. Many cover delicate and possibly disturbing ground. Some have subtitles. And not all are cartoons. Yet that’s what the New York fest has been doing since 1997: what Beckman calls “widening and expanding” and “unlock[ing] a whole new idea” of what makes a quality film-going experience for kids.
“They really latch onto this stuff,” he says. “All you need to do is get them in the room.”
Beckman points to a key contradiction that his festival challenges. Adult films come in a variety of flavors — from popcorn to serious. “But for a kid, there’s one kind of film being made and if it doesn’t make $150 million at the box office it’s considered a failure,” Beckman says. With adult movies, “You’d never measure ‘Amour’ versus a Will Smith movie.”
When Beckman first launched his festival, he says the mission was to “fill what we saw as a huge gaping hole” in the market. But he stresses his program is not a “kids’ ghetto.” There’s plenty here for adults to appreciate, too. (That said, all screenings start between 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., over two weekends and during the April school vacation week.) The selection of films has the “Sesame Street’’ effect, says Carter Long, curator of film and video at the MFA. “Kids can be entertained, but intellectually and visually these are captivating in a way that adults can enjoy as well.”
A look at the stickier subject matter reminds you that these films were not pitched to focus groups or policed by some parents’ association.
Take the animated Japanese “Wolf Children” by Mamoru Hosoda. Unflinchingly, it depicts a father’s death, then the aftermath of a single mother raising their two kids — who happen to turn into wolves. There’s also a brief, non-explicit bedroom scene of her and her werewolf husband.
“The Painting,” by French animation director Jean-François Laguioni, is a sharp social critique set in a Chagall-like, vividly rendered land of unfinished artwork. There, society is stratified into three classes: the royalty, the “Alldunns” (those whom “the painter” finished painting); the half-completed, middle-class “Halfies”; and the bottom-rung “Sketchies.” Viewers also briefly see some cartoon nudity, in the form of a woman who is the talking subject of a half-nude portrait.
Then there’s the charming animated adventure “Zarafa,” from France’s Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christophe Lie, which tells the story of an African boy who ventures to Paris with a giraffe in a hot air balloon. Visually, it’s as polished as a classic of Disney cel animation, but thematically the cartoon is more challenging. Kidnapping, slavery, and racial intolerance figure prominently, as does the death of animals.
As expected, many films also venture into a child’s secret world and connection with the supernatural. But the loss of parents, gunplay, being the new kid in the neighborhood, loneliness, and general ennui also suffuse much of the program. That’s life.
“Outside the US, they laugh at us Americans for being so puritanical,” says Beckman. “For me as a programmer and as a parent, what I’m more horrified with, typically, is gratuitous violence or stereotyping different kinds of characters.”
All of the films are tested with kids, he says, and each film is described carefully in the program notes, as well as given a suggested minimum age. “Wolf Children,” for example, is recommended for ages 9 and up, though the film’s themes might be too difficult for some, regardless of age.
Other festival highlights include “Ernest & Celestine,” which Beckman labels one of the most talked-about films on the program. The French-Belgian minimalist cartoon by Benjamin Renner, about an unlikely friendship between a mouse named Celestine and a bear named Ernest, recently won the César Award for best animated feature. Beckman calls it “ ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ for the younger set.”
“Starry Starry Night,” by Taiwanese Tom Shu-yu Lin, is one of the strongest non-animated features. Also tackling tough issues like death and divorce, the film, based on the celebrated picture book by Jimmy Liao, weaves together the real and fantasy worlds of a daydreaming seventh-grader named Mei, whose parents are fighting and whose grandfather is dying. She forges a friendship with Jay, a fellow school misfit, and together they escape to the cottage of Mei’s grandfather, whose carved wooden totems come to life and protect them on their journey.
The weird and touching romp “A Letter to Momo,” by Japan’s Hiroyuki Okiura, also concerns a girl’s fantasy life. Again, the father is dead, and the single mom and daughter Momo move from Tokyo to the remote island of Shio. In her new home, she discovers a trio of goblins — one frog-like, one troll-like, and one Gollum-like — assigned to watch over her. The film has all the hallmarks of Japanese animation — pale painterly backdrops and heroines with gigantic eyeballs — but the oddball humor and the way that Momo finally understands an unfinished letter from her father provide a quirky take on grief
The only real dud — or “spud” — is “Meet the Small Potatoes,” by American Josh Selig. It’s unclear who the target audience is for this mockumentary about a Beatles-like rock band whose members are talking, singing potatoes. The rock-doc jokes and faux archival footage will go over the heads of most younger children, while also not being clever enough to hold the attention of older kids and adults. And the inane musical numbers lack any shred of inventiveness.
Rounding out the program are three short-film packages (each with a trio of shorts and geared toward a different age group), and the features “The Zigzag Kid” (Belgium), “Kirikou and the Men and the Women” and “A Monster in Paris” (both from France), and “Welcome to the Space Show” (Japan).
There’s a final tie that binds the films on this festival program: scarcity. Most of these movies won’t ever be seen in theaters, or be released on DVD or Netflix.
In this regard, Beckman says his festival might be a real “savior” for the animation industry overseas, giving these indie filmmakers an audience in the States.
“It’s hard to get distribution in this country,” Beckman says, when every kids’ film is “being compared [with] ‘The Croods.’ ”
Like genetically engineered foods, there’s nothing untasty about a regime of digitally modified cartoons for kids. It’s just not the most balanced or satisfying diet.
Tickets and more information at www.mfa.org/film.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.