The Spool / Fantasia 2023
Fantasia Festival Dispatch: Animals abound
Fantasa International Film Festival gets wild.

Fantasa International Film Festival gets wild.

Animals feature prominently in our first three films of the 2023 Fantasia International Film Festival. From the bottom of the ocean to the reaches of the Arctic, these films mix their natural settings with unnatural mediums to create enchanting works that are wondrous to look at. Though they have different objectives, these films remind us that cinema is a world of dreams that combines things from our lived reality with our limitless imagination. 

Fantasia Festival Animal Edition Deep Sea (Tribeca)
(Tribeca Film Festival

Deep Sea 

Tian Xiao Peng’s wet and wild film is as ambitious as it is amphibious. We follow a young girl named Shenxiu (voiced by Wang Ting Wen) as she journeys to an underwater restaurant wonderland, searching for a home and a reconnection with her lost mother. With her reluctant guide, Nanhe (Su Xin), and a mysterious blob of hair and eyes called a Hijinx, they evade terrifying creatures and dreadful phantoms that lurk in the open water. 

Peng’s animated world celebrates the brilliant colors and fluidity of the water, often sprinting through prisms and beautiful scenes as ornate as the narrative within them. Deep Sea seems to culminate a year of water-works that have pushed cinema and audiences as far as possible. From Black Panther 2: Wakanda Forever and Avatar 2: The Way of Water to Netflix’s The Sea Beast and Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid, we’ve learned a lot about the appeals and challenges of the shape-shifting lifeforce that makes up most of our planet. Deep Sea has it all.  

Fantasia Festival Animal Edition Mother Land (M Line)
(M Line)

Mother Land

Much like Shenxiu in Deep Sea, the young girl Krisha in Park Jae-beom’s Mother Land is on a journey of self, belonging, and restoration. When her mother becomes deathly ill, Krisha (voiced by Kim Seo-yeong) and her little brother Kolya need to venture from their remote deer-herding village in Siberia into the Arctic wilderness to get help from the mythical Master of the Forest. Told with heart-rending stop-motion animation, the nostalgic puppets give Mother Land an enchanted storybook feel, but Park Jae-beom is unafraid to keep his story mature and relevant. There are moments of peril and profundity not often found in these tales. 

His cinematic fairy tale is a textbook hero’s journey that takes Krisha on a journey of self-discovery with folklore and tradition guiding her through obstacles. We cover an entire icy landscape of themes in this simple tale that barely stretches over an hour. Krisha meets more than a magical bear; she meets modernity itself and must navigate it while keeping her culture intact. Mother Land is a starry-eyed story filled with charm and purpose you can feel until the journey ends. 

Fantasia Festival Animal Edition Hundreds of Beavers (Mubi)

Hundreds of Beavers 

Where the previous two films in our roundup used animation as the medium of their story, Mike Cheslik’s Hundreds of Beavers takes inspiration from animation, cartoons, and video games that play out in the real world, like live-action looney tunes. Set in turn of the 20th Century Wisconsin, the film follows the misadventures of one Jean Kayak of Acme Applejack (Ryland Brickson Cole Tews) and his quest to gather enough pelts to impress the merchant at the outpost and marry his daughter. 

Like Mike Cheslik’s previous film, The Lake Michigan Monster, this film is also a pastiche of classic film gags, genres, and techniques, but with the absurdity amplified all the way up. But underneath the silliness, pantomime script, woodland mascot costumes, and astounding visual effects is a film with sound logic. Tricks and maneuvers circle back, building on one another, until Jean Kayak gets what he wants. Hundreds of Beavers remains one of the best films of this year because it embraces classical cinematic storytelling with a contemporary sensibility in a riotous way that is as sly and wily as the coyote who inspired it. 

In their way, all three films use the animal kingdom and the natural world as a place of personal and spiritual change. Identities, histories, and physics ebb and shift in all three films. Combining these animal tales with classic folkloric storytelling and modern cinematic techniques or technologies, all three directors have developed works that remind us of the wonders and follies that make us human.