Sunday, March 07, 2010

NYICFF ’10: In the Attic

It is not exactly the ash-heap of history, but it is close enough. One Czech family’s attic is filled with castoff items, including a variety of old toys and a military bust leftover from the Communist era. Yet even in mothballs, their fundamental natures remain the same in Jiří Barta’s stop-motion animated feature In the Attic or Who Has a Birthday Today? (trailer here), which screens during the 2010 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Even though they have been discarded by humanity, life is pleasant for an enclave of old toys. Every day Buttercup, a girly girl’s doll, bakes a cake for a teddy bear, a marionette knight, and a silly-putty man, who roll a special birthday die for the daily honors. Yet, danger lurks in the far reaches of the attic.

Head, a surviving piece of Communist statuary, covets Buttercup, and enlists his insect minions (nature’s collectivists) and the house cat (who is just plain evil) to kidnap her. Of course, the squabbling toys launch a rescue mission with the help of the rest of the toy community and a sympathetic rat, but the terrain of Head’s Land of Evil is forbidding and he maintains absolute control through his cult of personality.

While the quest story, co-written by Barta and Edgar Dutka, might not hold a lot of surprises per se, it is the visually dazzling journey that counts. Rendered without the aid of computers, Barta creates a richly detailed, fully realized world, filled with winningly eccentric flourishes. Head (the flesh-and-blood head of Czech actor Jiří Labus rendered through Barta’s animation process) also makes a thoroughly creepy screen villain, effectively channeling fallen Communist icons and dystopian Big Brother archetypes (if there is any difference between the two).

Considered an animator’s animator, Barta’s style is perfectly suited to Attic’s familiar yet mysterious setting and fable like story. Though some scenes with Head are undeniably intense, the festival program frankly makes it sound much darker than it really is. It is a magical story that should enchant youngster, while fascinating their parents with its shrewd commentary. Enthusiastically recommended, it screens again next Sunday (3/14) at the IFC Center, as the NYICFF continues through March 21st (but never on school nights).