Imagine watching artsy Saturday-morning cartoons with a room full of other families. That's what you get at Childish Films, a monthly series of little movies and animated shorts for children and parents at the downtown Minneapolis public library.
On a recent weekend, my 5-year-old daughter and I settled into comfy seats in a wood-paneled auditorium to watch six animations starring a variety of critters cavorting to soundtracks of old-time music. The theme was "Have a Hootenanny," and we saw a couple of films from early Canadian animators, adaptations of fables and children's books and a 1948 Disney cartoon of a bumblebee flying to music.
At a time when most of us can pull up animations by the megabyte on our computers and smartphones or flip on the TV anytime to catch cable cartoons, it may seem strange to drive downtown to watch them. But as the packed auditorium of giggling kids proved, communal film watching delivers something that's missing from the personal screen. Besides, I would never have stumbled on these delightful and often obscure films on my own.
Every program is preceded by an activity or live performance, and in keeping with the hootenanny theme, the Roe Family Singers played old-time music on the day we went. I was impressed with Kim Roe, wearing cowboy boots, a jean skirt and brown braids, who sang and played the washboard while her baby perched in a backpack and sucked a pacifier. My daughter couldn't keep her eyes off Adam Wirtzfeld, who coaxed astounding sounds from a saw blade he held upright between his knees and rubbed with a bow.
After the music, a screen descended onto the stage, the lights dimmed and Childish Films co-founder Deb Girdwood introduced the films.
First up was "Mr. Frog Went A-Courting" by Evelyn Lambart, who worked in Canada during the 1940s through 1970s. "It's one of my favorites," Girdwood told the audience, over the chatter of small children and the rustling of granola bar wrappers. "She's one of first women to work in experimental animation."
The whimsical film featured simple animal cutouts against a black background and lasted less than five minutes. Adults and kids laughed together when frog showed up for his wedding to Miss Mousie in "sky blue britches with little silver stitches." And everyone gasped when the wedding party, "all sailed out across the lake and got swallowed up by the biggest black snake."
Girdwood started the series five years ago with Isabelle Harder, a fellow film buff and mother. Harder is now in New York City but still collaborates on a few film selections. Childish Films grew from their work together curating children's films for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film
"It's always such a rush and so much fun, but it's not entirely satisfying," Girdwood said. "I'll bring in so many films that are awesome. But there is no way you can ask your friends and all their kids to come to three shows a day, three weekends in a row."
Girdwood wanted to screen films in a more manageable schedule for parents. When she saw the auditorium at the new downtown Minneapolis library, she knew she had found her location. Friends of the Hennepin County Library was eager to sponsor the series, and now it has expanded to two suburban libraries.
Girdwood occasionally shows a short feature film. She has shown the classic "Red Balloon" and another by the same French director, Albert Lamorisse, "White Mane," about a wild horse and a boy in the south of France.
But she usually selects about a half-hour's worth of animated shorts.
"I spend way too much time researching and YouTube-ing," she laughs. "If you're tuned into art websites, you can hook into amazing animations."
She is partial to obscure Disney cartoons; animations by Faith and John Hubley, who created shorts for the early years of "Sesame Street"; and the bucktoothed characters Spot and Splodge, brought to life through stop-action by Swedish animators Uzi and Lotta Geffenblad.
The next show, Jan. 21, is built around "Harold and the Purple Crayon." Yes, there is a tie-in to the play opening this month at Children's Theater Company, where Girdwood works in the back office. Several film adaptations of the Harold books will be interspersed with experimental films that use morphing lines and dots.
The February program is devoted to the work of Belgium artists who create professional-quality animations using children's artwork. She'll screen the 2011 Academy Award nominated "The Gruffalo" in March. April features film-festival shorts and a chance to help make a stop-action film.
SHARING THE EXPERIENCE
On the Saturday we went, we also saw "Hen Hop" by Canadian Norman McClaren. He apparently drew his line drawings of a dancing chicken directly onto the 35mm film strip. And we saw an obscure and slow-paced version of the fable "The Tortoise and the Hare," after which my daughter leaned over and whispered "Oh mama! This is so fun."
Next up were two book adaptations: "Rosie's Walk," about a chicken who struts through the barnyard unaware she's being followed by a fox, and "Frederick," about a mouse whose dreams of summer colors sustain his fellow mice through a long, cold winter. When "Frederick" started, a little boy in the audience squealed, "I know this mouse!"
The last two were from Weston Woods, a division of Scholastic that allows Childish Films to screen its children's book adaptations free of charge.
The morning closed with "Bumble Boogie," set to a frenetic boogie-woogie version of "Flight of the Bumblebee" by Rimsky Korsakov. When it was over and the lights came on, my daughter looked sad. "Oh, I want another one," she said.
After the screening, I talked to Sarah Goldammer, who had come with her husband, Derik Newman, and their two children, Leif, 5, and Mikko, 3.
"The whole experience of coming downtown, for the kids it's fun," Goldhammer said. "And the cartoons are - how do you say it? They're more artsy and literary. I feel like they're more thought provoking. The kids aren't fed a story. They have to think a bit."
She had also met friends at the theater, turning the morning into social time for adults and kids.
In the end, the communal experience is as important as the thoughtful film selection to the success of Childish Films.
A few weeks later, my daughter and I pulled up a few of the animated shorts on YouTube. While entertaining, they didn't charm us as they had when we saw them on a big screen. Maybe it was because I was in the middle of checking email and distracted by thoughts of what to make for dinner. In the auditorium, my daughter and I gave the screen our undivided attention.
"I really like having the parents and the kids really watching it together," Girdwood said. "Everyone is responding and focusing on it together. And it's absolutely a different experience to see with other families. It brings a sense of community."
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Childish Films program
Where: Minneapolis Public Library, 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
When: Third Saturday of month, September through April; doors open for activities at 10 a.m.; program starts at 10:30 a.m.
Information: 612-543-8107 or supporthclib.org
Target audience: Toddlers through elementary-school-age kids
Crowd pleaser: Laughing with everyone at the dancing chicken
Avoid: Parking hassles. Leave the car in the ramp beneath the library; enter on Fourth Street.
Tip: Designed by Cesar Pelli, the library is worth exploring on its own. Stop by the children's room, full of reading nooks and the largest collection of children's books in the Upper Midwest.