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31st Philadelphia Film Festival: Animated Shorts Program

After having to cancel my plans to attend last month’s Ottawa International Animation Festival at the last minute, I was glad the Philadelphia Film Festival’s animated shorts program gave me a chance to get my fix. This was a pretty solid collection of films, encompassing a variety of styles and narratives. The overall tone was fairly dark, which is always fine with me, but several of the films also made a habit of just stopping instead of actually ending. A lack of resolution can feel like a natural conclusion, but not so much in these cases. Regardless, they were all worth seeing, which is more than I can say for the much higher volume of films I would have seen at OIAF, and I was happy to do so on the big screen in the recently reopened PFS East (née Ritz East) theater.

Five Cents

Aaron Hughes, USA
As much as anti-consumerist themes are pretty much guaranteed to resonate with me, they’re often expressed with an excessive didacticism that blunts their effectiveness. Not so with this brilliant film, whose protagonist learns the hard way how consumer goods are designed to make us feel inadequate and how purchases tend to multiply. In some ways reminiscent of Jiří Trnka’s The Hand, its premise is fairly plainly stated but still makes for a novel and memorable polemic, and it never oversells its point. Its drawing and collage technique is both simple and clever. I was especially taken with its use of financial data to represent rain.

The Cave

Kim Jinman, Chon Jiyoung, South Korea
After the death of his father, a boy discovers a supernatural cave that allows him to process his grief by putting curses on the people who inherited his father’s belongings. A bit schmaltzy for my taste, but offbeat enough to compensate. Wonderful, highly textural stop-motion technique with felted puppets and environments.

Something in the Garden

Marcos Sánchez, Chile
A great mood piece, following a creeping slug-like creature electrocuting and devouring everything in its path in the dark of night. It seems like an actual story will emerge at any moment, but it ultimately settles for just capturing a strange and sinister moment, admirably affecting the contradictory feel of a tranquil nightmare.

Meal on the Plate

Chenglin Xie, USA, China
The most overtly comedic film in the program, taking literally the maxim that you are what you eat, its characters notice themselves slowly taking on the physical traits of the animals they consume. Whether or not it explicitly advocates for veganism, its diners’ inability to sustain a plant-based diet is a comically grotesque indictment of our addiction to creature comforts (pun intended) and hostility toward any threat to them, even if I found its conclusion unfittingly oblique.

Beware of Trains

Emma Calder, UK
In a visit to her therapist, a woman details a variety of anxieties, moving among them fluidly in a dreamlike fashion despite their seeming disconnectedness. Great collage aesthetic and an unsettling journey into a fragmented psyche. Undoubtedly an uncomfortable experience for the inevitable parents in the crowd who brought their kids under the flawed assumption that animation is synonymous with family entertainment.

The Flying Sailor

Wendy Tilby, Amanda Forbis, Canada
There’s something distinctly Canadian about this film (apart from its setting) that I can’t put my finger on. I would have been surprised if it didn’t have the NFB logo on it. It’s about the Halifax Explosion of 1917, and specifically about a sailor said to have been launched more than two kilometers by said explosion, who lived to tell the tale. I couldn’t find any mention of this tale online, but in any case, the film is a beautiful mixed-media rendering of his flight and the existential flares, lucid or otherwise, that might have gone through his head while he was airborne.

Goodbye Jérôme!

Michelle Garza Cervera, Mexico
After ending his own life, a man attempts to reunite with his deceased wife in the afterlife, but when he finally does, she doesn’t want to see him. It’s an interesting idea worth exploring, but this film seems mainly like an excuse to instead visit a quirky vision of heaven framed as a kind of surrealist vacation resort. If I hadn’t been so dissatisfied by the way its postmortem divorce felt like an afterthought, the main takeaway would have been that its colorful style and odd proportions bring Seymour Chwast to mind, and its creatures and scenarios are imaginative and fun.


Moon Sujin, South Korea
A girl wears an elaborate disguise of gaudy cartoon beauty when she goes out with her friends. A pretty straightforward metaphor for how social media pressures girls and young women to project idealized and objectified versions of themselves, but its on-the-nose interpretation of the concept is still quietly unnerving. Its rubber-suited protagonist echoes the themes and dystopian body horror seen in Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor.


Jonatan Schwenk, Germany
A species of glowing, lizard-like creatures is minding its own business when some humans discover the supernatural benefits of eating them. My kind of stop-motion, with just a hint of narrative that can suggest any number of interpretations, and a simultaneously whimsical and ominous vibe recalling the phantasmagorical films of Emma de Swaef and Marc Roels.

Ice Merchants

João Gonzalez, Portugal
A father and son living high on a mountain make daily excursions to sell ice to the villagers below, but the operation proves unsustainable. This one’s a beauty, with great hand-drawn texture, a restrained palette of primaries, and a familial gravitas that never turns maudlin, making reference to the climate crisis without being about the climate crisis. It brings to mind Kunio Katō’s The House of Small Cubes, in that the characters’ home is central to the story and at odds with its environment, and that the wife’s conspicuous absence borders on spectral. I didn’t quite understand the ending, which averts tragedy and seems to suggest that these are just two of many ice merchants. I think letting it end a couple minutes sooner would have been appropriately bittersweet, with the pair’s final descent reuniting them not with the villagers, but with the third member of their family. But these days I can’t fault anyone for clinging to any hope they can find.