Animated Features From Miyazaki and Others Toon Up Screens at Global Film Festivals

When Hayao Miyazaki’s semi-autobiographical fantasy “The Boy and the Heron” had its international premiere Sept. 7, it wasn’t just the first animated film to open TIFF, or the master director’s first in a decade. It is also part of an unexpected resurgence of animated work at major international festivals.

“When we started doing [2017’s] ‘Loving Vincent,’ only one adult animated film every five years got any kind of recognition,” says Hugh Welchman, who directed ”Vincent” and “The Peasants,” which premiered Sept. 8 at TIFF, with wife D.K. Welchman. “Now it seems that every year one kind of breaks out.”

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Their Oscar-nominated Vincent van Gogh biopic helped inspire this trend, earning $42.2 million worldwide on a $5.5 million budget. “Heron” is already continuing arthouse animation’s successful run, taking in $50.6 million since July in Japan alone. And prominent fests are increasing their support: in 2019, Cannes launched an Animation Day in partnership with the Annecy International Animation Film Festival.

This awards season is bringing out even more colorful contenders. On Sept. 7, TIFF presented the Canadian premiere of Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal’s musical mystery “They Shot the Piano Player” following its Telluride bow, and the North American premiere of Pablo Berger’s dialogue-free friendship tale “Robot Dreams.” Bankside Films hosted a Sept 8. market screening of Neil Boyle and Kirk Hendry’s shipwreck drama “Kensuke’s Kingdom.”

Animation is also springing up in live-action films. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ Telluride premiere, the National Geographic doc “The Mission,” uses animated sequences to illustrate the childhood of its subject. And director/co-writer/actor Kristin Scott Thomas’ family drama “North Star” takes a similar approach. “Kristin and I wanted the sequences to illustrate the force and fragility of scattered memories from Catherine’s [Scarlett Johansson] past,” animator Reza Riahi says of the TIFF world premiere. “The technique of hand-painting on glass, frame by frame, offered the powerful poetic possibilities Kristin imagined for her film.”

Not every film in the genre is succeeding. Despite three Oscar noms for animated, international and doc feature last year, Neon’s $3.4 million gay refugee tale “Flee” made only $712,229 worldwide. And a much bigger fest entry, Disney/Pixar’s out-of-competition Cannes premiere “Elemental,” earned a disappointing $478 million worldwide next to its $200 million budget and large P&A spend.

Several of these offerings could’ve been produced as live-action indies, but instead illustrate scenes in a way that enhances the mood of their material. The Polish-language epic “The Peasants,” an adaptation of Władysław Reymont’s Nobel Prize–winning novel of the same name written in the early 20th century, explores tensions between a father, his adult son, the son’s wife and the prettiest woman in their village. “I found it very moving for me as a woman and an artist, because the style of writing is very painterly, evoking the imagination. It reads like paintings come to life,” says D.K. Welchman, who was inspired by the “Young Poland” art movement of the period.

Trueba says the idea for “Piano Player” began when he found a record featuring a Brazilian pianist, Francisco Tenório Júnior, and eventually discovered — spoiler alert — that the musician was “disappeared” by the Argentinian government in the 1970s. But he “felt it was more logical to imagine an American journalist investigating it than a Spanish movie director, and better for the story,” casting Jeff Goldblum to voice the role. Trueba has directed many live action films, and says “animation was not my style” until he co-directed 2010’s Oscar-nominated “Chico & Rita” with Javier Mariscal. “It was a big discovery — that it was a new language for telling a story, and much more interesting.”

Fests clearly help bring animated films arthouse and awards success. “Heron” distrib GKids, which concentrates on indie and foreign fare, has released 12 Oscar-nominated films since it launched in 2008- — including several from Miyazaki’s home, Studio Ghibli. GKids president Dave Jesteadt says the 82-year-old helmer’s legacy “is built around fantastic fantasy epics like ‘Spirited Away,’ and [“Heron”] producer Toshio Suzuki said Miyazaki felt compelled to make one more at his age. Festivals play a vital role in elevating animated films like his, help even the odds with major studios [for awards] and get people to take animation seriously.”

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