Considering the advances in mainstream animation in recent times – think of Shrek, Toy Story and not least The Simpsons – the line-up at the Barbican’s Animate the World season this week is disappointing. The object of the exercise is to show that the US isn’t the only source of the world’s best animation, but what this year’s offerings demonstrate all too clearly is that the rest of the world is lagging some way behind in technical and narrative finesse.
The brief season opens with Philippe Vidal’s BÃ©cassine and the Viking Treasure (2001), an ambitious HergÃ©-like adventure about an accident-prone nanny – Mary Poppins meets Mr Bean – who teams up with her young charge to thwart some treasure-grabbing baddies.
BÃ©cassine was a popular character in French children’s literature in the early years of the 20th century, which explains her curiously dated, doll-like appearance. It’s as if some British animator has suddenly decided to make a feature-length cartoon of Billy Bunter. Having worked on the animations of Tintin and Rupert, Vidal is obviously into action-packed adventures involving, in this case, 400 separate characters.
One of the problems for a non-French-speaking British viewer is that it requires enormous concentration and stamina to read non-stop subtitles for 83 minutes in order to keep up with the plot. This becomes an insurmountable problem when it is required of a child. My 12-year-old daughter gave up after five minutes.
Gurin and the Foxtail (1998) is the most expensive Norwegian film ever made, apparently, and only the second full-length animation to come out of that country. It tells of a naughty gnome who sprouts a foxtail and his frantic efforts to get rid of it. There are bags of humourous detail and some great characters, including a mad inventor whose robotic contraptions would give Nick Park’s Wallace a run for his money.
But you feel the makers of Gurin would benefit hugely from spending time with Park or the guys from Pixar to unlock the secret of narrative momentum and achieving those all-important dramatic peaks. Penguins to the Rescue (2001) comes out of Argentina from director Franco Bittolo, who started out doing layouts and storyboards for Disney. This is an undistinguished and garishly coloured effort about some penguins in search of their missing daughter.
Despite its awful title, I preferred the Danish Circleen – Mice & Romance (2000), another rescue story about a wicked mouse who keeps his daughter imprisoned in a box, but this one is quirky and offbeat enough to hold your attention, regardless of age or comprehension. It is a follow-up to last year’s Circleen – City Mouse, also made by Denmark’s veteran animator Janik Hastrup, who has directed some 60 animated features. Hastrup has an effortless, light-hearted style that charms you into submission and he understands the importance of the score in complementing the images.
Ammar Al Sharbaji’s The Jar (2001) is based on a centuries-old Syrian story about a poor family’s attempts to return some lost treasure to its rightful owner. The unsophisticated style of animation is not helped by some incongruous dubbing of shrill American voices, making you long for dreary old subtitles.
I longed to see The Little Polar Bear (2001), based on the delightful children’s books by Hans de Beer, but Warner Brothers were not able to arrange a screening in time for my deadline. However, it is on general release from 11 April, so I shall be hot-footing it to my local Odeon on the pretext of giving my kids a treat.
Animate the World season: on 11 April, 6pm, BÃ©cassine and The Viking Treasure; 12 April, The Little Polar Bear (11am), The Jar (2pm) and Gurin and The Foxtail (4pm); 13 April, Circleen – Mice & Romance (11am) and Penguins to the Rescue (2pm). There are also Family Workshops on 12 and 13 April from 11am-1pm and 2-4pm. The Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2