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Originally published January 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 22, 2008 at 10:11 AM

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Fantasy, reality from around the world

Richer, slicker and somewhat stranger than its title might suggest, the annual Children's Film Festival begins another 10-day engagement...

Special to The Seattle Times

Film festival preview

Children's Film Festival, Friday-Feb. 3, Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle; $6 kids and adults ($5 NWFF members) for screenings, prices vary for special events (800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com; information: 206-329-2629 or www.childrensfilmfestivalseattle.org).

Richer, slicker and somewhat stranger than its title might suggest, the annual Children's Film Festival begins another 10-day engagement Friday at Northwest Film Forum.

The lineup includes a sweet German science-fiction fable called "Moonman," a dreamy insect-relationship tale dubbed "The Mantis Parable," a wonderfully goofy six-minute opera called "The Piano Lesson" and such rarely seen classic Oscar nominees as "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Golden Fish."

"We have 80 films from 20 countries at this point," said Elizabeth Shepherd, programmer for the festival for the third straight year. Among the events are workshops; a Saturday-morning pancake breakfast; state-of-the-art special-effects showcases; and an interactive exhibit that makes use of such audiovisual antiques as overhead projectors, filmstrip projectors and slide projectors.

Shepherd is especially enthusiastic about "Peace," which she describes as "a film about peace and what it means to kids," and a collection of shorts, "Make a Leap," that emphasizes the process of growing up through challenges and compromise.

The opening-night attraction is a deluxe presentation of Lotte Reiniger's landmark 1926 animated film, "The Adventures of Prince Achmed," that will include a live performance of a new score commissioned by Northwest Film Forum. Local duo Miles and Karina (Nova Devonie and David Keenan) will perform the music they recently composed for the picture.

Produced a decade before the Disney studio created its first feature ("Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"), Reiniger's "Prince Achmed" is now widely regarded as the oldest animated feature in existence. Deftly using silhouette-animation techniques to tell an Arabian Nights tale, it recently went through a painstaking restoration process.

Among the local productions on view is Wes Kim's "Cookies For Sale," which uses surprisingly persuasive special effects to tell a neighborhood tug-of-war story that takes a detour to outer space. Portland's Oscar-winning Claymation expert Will Vinton will be represented by a program of his early work, including the evolution-embracing "Legacy," the Genesis-based "Creation" and the jaunty "Mountain Music" — a 1975 film that now looks like a forecast of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption.

One of the strongest feature-length entries in the festival is Anne Wild's spooky new live-action German version of "Hansel and Gretel," in which the parents of the title characters are almost scarier than the witch who threatens to turn them into supper. Dad may be passive, their stepmother may be aggressive, but they're both bad news for the kids, whom they abandon in the woods because they can no longer feed a family of four.

Wild begins the film with a giant close-up of the eyes of a child who becomes a witness to the deprivations to come. Using their imaginations to dream up chicken dinners and cake desserts, almost reduced to eating the last of their rodent-infested sauerkraut, the children become remarkably resourceful in the face of betrayal. They never lose their love of playing games or finding ways to survive.

More conventional is Don McBrearty's pretty Canadian drama "Luna: Spirit of the Whale," about an orphaned San Juan Islands Orca who swims to picturesque Vancouver Island. Apparently she's the reincarnation of a recently deceased Indian chief who wants to be reunited with the tribe.

The filmmakers do a better job of exploring the beauty of British Columbia than they do of making demands on the actors, including Adam Beach ("Flags of Our Fathers"), Graham Greene ("Dances With Wolves") and Jason Priestley, who does have some fun with his part as a corrupt media manipulator. The filmmakers claim the script is based on fact.

As usual, the festival has a strong international flavor. Sweden is represented by the twisted feature-length fantasy "Desmond and the Swamp Barbarian Trap" as well as a collection of shorts, "From the Heart of Sweden: Animation With a Global Reach," that includes such titles as "Poison Arrow Frogs" and "Garantia and the Shooting Star."

Running through the festival is a beguiling if formulaic series of 10-minute shorts that explore one theme: "What Makes Me Happy." Kids from Sri Lanka, Nepal, China, Ethiopia and the West Bank celebrate the idea that many of the best things in life are simple and/or free.

Several featurettes are substantial enough to suggest the heft of features, including the charming, 37-minute "Big Top Winkle," which uses silent-comedy techniques to tell the story a tiny orphaned dog who is captured by an inept traveling circus. It's sharing a program with the British installment of "What Makes Me Happy."

The director of "Big Top Winkle," Lara Jo Regan, will attend the screening, along with the star's offspring, Mr. Winkle Jr. In addition to presenting several of his early films, Vinton will discuss the history of Claymation and 3D animation.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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