Something that’s all too rare to see these days is entertainment for children that actually gives them a degree of intellectual credit. You do get it here and there, particularly from the works of Laika and Ghibli, but for the most part, the bulk of kiddie fare either panders to them or just tries to outright advertise. Sometimes that’s fine, depending on the sensibilities of the young audience or the subject matter. But really, if you give a child a chance to impress you with their awareness of the world, they will.
I’ll give you an example from a few months ago. When my mother passed, I went home to upstate New York to make the funeral arrangements. Between myself, my sister, and her husband, we all decided we’d do our best to make the two weeks I was there as pleasant for my nephew as possible, as he was only four years old, and honestly he’d already had enough exposure to death for someone so young, having lost one of his uncles (my brother-in-law’s brother) and one of the family cats in the previous year alone. Amazingly, he had handled those two sad moments rather well, I assumed because there wasn’t as much closeness as he had with his grandmother, who had cooed him from the day he was born, and who still relished every moment she had with him even in the throes of dementia.
When we went to the local American Legion post to book it for the reception (our family was at one point very active in the organization, and mom rose to the level of District President for the Auxiliary), I showed the boy around the place and told him that this was one of Grandma’s favorite places, all the while holding back my own tears when I saw that her name was up on the notice board in recognition of the tragic occasion. What he said in response was something I was totally unprepared for but will always remember:
“Yes, but Grandma died, so there’s no more grandmas for me (his paternal grandmother passed years before he was born). But she was your mama and mama’s mama, and you knew her for longer than me so it must be sadder for you. I love you.”
And then he gave me the biggest hug. It was everything I could do to not collapse on the ground bawling. He knew. He understood. Not only had he already figured out how to process his own grief, he was pivoting to giving comfort to others. And he said it so matter-of-factly, like it was the most natural reaction his young mind could think up.
We didn’t need to hide the truth from him. We didn’t need to distract him from the feelings we were all going through. I was amazed, and I still am. He’s going to be so well-adjusted when he gets older. As adult members of the family, we’ll obviously still do whatever we can to protect him from the bad things in the world. Hell, I even started bleeping my swears in my YouTube videos for his sake. But that moment let me know that he could grasp the heavier stuff going on around him, and because of that, I know he’ll be just fine.
This entire personal diversion is to frame my reaction to the new animated film, The Inventor, which debuted in competition at this year’s Annecy Film Festival (and was nominated for Best Feature), and which has just gotten its qualifying run for what I presume will be an Academy submission for Animated Feature. A joint venture of the U.S., France, and Ireland, and produced by Curiosity Studio (with some possible tutelage from Cartoon Saloon, another outfit that’s great at telling nuanced kid stories that’s thanked in the credits), the film is a lovely, and mostly safe, stop-motion history lesson about the life of Leonardo da Vinci. However, while this does carry a lighter tone perfect for the youngest viewer, it doesn’t shy away from some harsh truths, knowing that engaging children on their level will result in understanding and appreciation.
Focusing on the last few years of Leonardo’s life, the story begins in Rome, where the Maestro (voiced by Stephen Fry) was in the employ of Pope Leo X (Matt Berry). With tensions brewing between the Holy See and France, Leo wants Leonardo to design devastating weapons, which he resists, instead opting to dissect and study cadavers, partially to understand how the human body functions mechanically, but also in hopes of discovering where inside the body a person might keep their soul. Leonardo is threatened with excommunication and execution for his work, as it was considered heresy at the time, until he’s able to convince the Pope to sue for peace with France.
Upon presenting King Francis I (Guathier Battoue) with a mechanical lion, Leonardo receives an offer to join the French court. Sensing an opportunity to serve a more enlightened patron, Leonardo makes the trek, meeting the king’s mother Louise (Marion Cotillard) and the Princess Marguerite (Daisy Ridley). Francis, wishing to make a show of strength to his “fellow kings” in England and Spain, commissions Leonardo to help build a castle and a grand statue of him for an upcoming festival. With Marguerite’s help, however, Leonardo dissuades Francis from the idea of chest pounding in favor of building the “Ideal City,” a large castle town operated by canals and dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge rather than military superiority.
Temporarily mollified, Francis approves the plan, so long as his ego-stroking projects are prioritized as well. This also frees Leonardo up to continue his dissections in secret. It’s clear that between all the work and his age, Leonardo is spreading himself too thinly, and questions arise as to whether he’ll be able to maintain the king’s favor, complete his quest for the soul, or even be able to keep on living in yet another environment that appears to stymie creativity and innovation.
There’s a lot going on here, and I’m impressed with how well it’s all balanced. Written and directed by Jim Capobianco, who co-wrote Ratatouille, the script makes sure never to linger on one plot thread long enough for the youngest viewer to get bored, while also making sure to give each moment the time it needs to still be effective, so that we don’t end up bouncing between scenes in a hyperactive manner. The dialogue and music may be a bit simplistic at times, but it’s appropriate for its target audience, conveying the importance of the moment even if it might not be entirely accurate.
This is aided immensely by the presentation. The bulk of the film is 3D stop-motion with a decidedly Rankin-Bass aesthetic, only with the eyes being small beads rather than big and expressive. Francis is allowed to be cartoonish and goofy. Pope Leo X is three times the size of any other character, an excellent visual representation of the power that the Church could wield in the 16th century. And of course, I just adore Leonardo’s design, short but energetic, and full of fatherly grace (it’s no coincidence that Francis refers to him as “mon père,” or “my father”) in his spry step. In a silly but inspired touch, Leonardo’s mouth protrudes from the middle of his long beard, so low that it could not possibly connect to the rest of his face given the dimensions of his head. It’s just nonsensical enough to grab a kid’s attention and keep it while they giggle.
The rest of it is 2D pencil sketches and watercolors, usually to illustrate the dreams and imagination of Leonardo and other characters. It’s a really fun way to bring rough ideas to life, something that Leonardo himself was perhaps better at than anything else. He could conceive just about anything, and make you see it in your own mind’s eye, and the animation here conveys that perfectly.
The blend makes for a lovely visual spectacle, even for older viewers, but what shocked me the most was how willing the film was to go dark, and how frankly it discussed not just our mortality, but the inherent comedy that can come with it. There is a good deal of gallows humor on display here, from an anachronistic “film” presentation where Leonardo shows Pope Leo how he can make weapons that would decapitate soldiers en masse, to a running gag where a married gravedigging couple muses about life and death while dancing, so distracted that they don’t notice Leonardo and his associates dragging corpses away.
This is what I’m talking about when I say that the filmmakers give their tiny audience a lot of intellectual credit. Even the youngest viewer has likely experienced death in some way, be it a relative or a goldfish. As much as it’s in our nature to want to shield them from trauma, it’s very likely they’ve been exposed to it and have already begun learning how to cope. It only helps that the movie treats the subject with curiosity and good humor, showing it as something that’s okay to fear, but that also can be kind of funny in the right context. “There’s nothing to fear from knowledge and truth,” opines Leonardo in an absolutely gorgeous opening scene where he shows off a magnifying telescope prototype. Yes, death is the end of a life, but it could just as easily be the start of a new journey of discovery, and as long as passion is shared and the challenges of the world faced together, any idea can live forever, and the big answers come closer to our grasp.
That degree of respect, both for the film’s subject as well as the future of those watching, is what makes this essential family fare. The mind of a child is a wondrous thing, because even if they can’t communicate eloquently, there are no limits to what they can comprehend. The more we foster that, the better off we’ll all be, to the point that maybe one day the sight of a toddler understanding the loss of a loved one with a degree of empathy that many adults aren’t capable of won’t be seen as such an emotional surprise, but rather the next step in our collective evolution.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What movies do you think will be nominated for Animated Feature next year? Did you get major Burgermeister flashbacks looking at Leo X? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for more content!