SPROCKETS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL FOR CHILDREN (April 13-22), various locations. www.sprockets.ca. Rating: NNNNN
AZUR AND ASMAR (Michel Ocelot, France). 99 minutes. Subtitled. April 15, 2 pm, Isabel Bader. Rating: NNNN
Renowned French director Michel Ocelot's latest is an enchanting adventure story about race, rivalry and brotherhood, all rendered in a haunting animation style.
The noble Azur and the commoner Asmar are raised together by Asmar's mother, who is Azur's nurse. The two boys - one white, one brown - share everything until the day they're separated by Azur's father, who banishes the nurse and her son. Years later, now grown up, Azur travels to Asmar's country (unnamed, but it's probably Morocco), where the two compete against each other for the hand of the mythical Djinn Fairy.
Using a mix of computer animation (which at times looks crude) and stunningly painted backdrops, Ocelot has created an elegant story that's exciting and relevant in its look at race relationships. It's being released commercially this fall in a dubbed English version; I hope they don't translate the evocative "Djinn Fairy" as "Princess."
GILLES (Jan Verheyen, Belgium). 91 minutes. Subtitled. April 14, 2:30 pm; April 22, 10:40 am, Canada Square. Rating: NNNN
Soccer movies often portray goal-scoring as easier, more dramatic and more inevitable than it usually is, and Gilles is no exception. A little licence can be forgiven, though, in a film as lovely and touching as this.
Kind of a footballers' version of Field Of Dreams, Gilles stars Ilya Van Malderghem in the title role, a pre-teen soccer sensation with a killer right foot, determined to make the junior squad of Belgium's Red Devils team. On the sidelines is Gilles's father, Bert (Filip Peeters), whose own career was cut short and who is living through his son - literally, since he dies in the first five minutes.
Van Malderghem really sells the eternal child's conflict - the longing for approval and simultaneous craving for independence. Excellent performances and an unconventional ending lift Gilles above standard sports movie fare.
OFF-SIDE (Arend Steenbergen, the Netherlands). 87 minutes. Subtitled. April 15, 12:20 pm; April 21, 2:20 pm, Canada Square. Rating: NNN
Don (Clemens Levert) is a well-to-do soccer star kicked out of his posh school for fighting. At his new inner-city school he's the victim of a bullying gang led by Henry (Samir Veen), but eventually wows his classmates with his football prowess.
Although the plot is clichéd - right down to Henry's girlfriend ditching him for Don - the performances are excellent. Levert, who resembles a young Sean Astin, has a kind of easy charisma, and Veen succeeds in showing the fear behind Henry's aggression.
Too bad the matter of class is barely raised, race isn't discussed at all and yet another kids' film says that being a good athlete is the best way to fit in. But the soccer scenes are full of energy (if occasionally inaccurate), and kudos to writer/director Steenbergen for portraying kids as the foul-mouthed, unpleasant little fascists they often are.
BRAVE STORY (Koichi Chigira, Japan). 111 minutes. Subtitled. April 14, 10:30 am, Isabel Bader; April 22, 2:40 pm, Canada Square. Rating: NNN
Serious kids with a touch of ADD who love anime should adore Brave Story, a fast-paced drama about an 11-year-old boy named Wataru who retreats to a magical kingdom to escape his unhappy family life.
At nearly two hours, Wataru's quest is epic, involving collecting gems for his sword, battling frightening dragons and confronting issues like guilt, suicide and murder. The end, about embracing life's sad and happy moments, is refreshingly unpatronizing.
Stylistically, the film feels like a really cool video game, and there are echoes of everything from The Wizard Of Oz (Wataru's ragtag group of friends includes a circus-performing cat and a jokey giant lizard) to The Lord Of The Rings. And if you're ever bored with one setting, you only have to wait a minute or two before the next.