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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

What has a dog and historic significance—and required a whole lot of hours to create?

The answer is Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero. It’s one of the 10 feature films that will be presented as part of the 2018 Palm Springs International Animation Festival and Expo, taking place Wednesday, Aug. 22, through Sunday, Aug. 26.

Sgt. Stubby is based on real events that took place during World War I. It is a beautiful story about a stray dog who finds himself with the American 102nd infantry Regiment. Stubby served for 18 months and participated in 17 battles on the Western front. Because he could smell better than his human counterparts, he prevented them from walking into attacks; he also found and comforted wounded soldiers. He’s even the subject of an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution.

If you’re more of a cat-lover, there is also a film for you: “Marnie’s World is a fantastic story about a spoiled house cat. All of the sudden, Marnie gets caught in an adventure with these dogs and wild animals. They steal a car then go on the run.”

That’s how Brian Neil Hoff, the festival’s director, described the film as he gave me the rundown of the festival’s offerings, which will include both features and short films.

Hoff said he and his crew received more than 3,000 submissions this year.

“We get submissions from around the world. This year, we have many films that are by Oscar winners and talents,” he said. “(Beyond) the 10 features, there will be 230 shorts available for viewing. They range in time from two minutes to 25 minutes, with all various styles and plot points.

“Not only (will the festival be the) U.S.A. premiere for a lot of these films; the films’ home countries range from Russia, Germany and Indonesia to Australia. This adds to the diversity, too.

“We are going to have special themed screenings, like for Sgt. Stubby. … We are inviting veterans and their families for the screening at the Palm Springs Air Museum.”

Another feature about which Hoff is excited is Wall. The 82-minute animated documentary features two-time Oscar nominee David Hare as he examines the impact of the wall between Israel and Palestine.

“This is a topical film for the environment today,” Hoff said.

He has steered the festival from rather humble beginnings into the world-class festival it is today.

“The festival started in my backyard nine years ago. That was the name of it: the Backyard Film Festival,” he said. “In fact, it may be the first festival to have started like that. I really didn’t know what I was doing. We had a few hundred people show up. This year, we’re looking at 25,000-30,000.”

Hoff is in the film industry himself, and he’s been able to tap into his network of animation filmmakers and artists.

“Animation just really stuck with me,” he said. “I am really impressed with the art form. People work on these projects for, like, five years. Oftentimes, this is their premiere for their hard work.”

The 2018 Palm Springs International Animation Festival and Expo, being held in partnership with Comic Con Palm Springs, takes place Wednesday, Aug. 22, through Sunday, Aug. 26, primarily at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Ticket prices vary; watch www.psiaf.org for a complete schedule and ticket information.

Published in Previews and Features

In director Hayao Miyazaki’s enchanting and somber The Wind Rises, Jiro (a character based on one of the designers of World War II Japanese bombers) shares his dreams with Caproni, an Italian airplane-builder who intends to retire.

Caproni has something in common with Miyzaki: The Wind Rises is allegedly the last animated feature from Miyazaki, the legendary director of such films as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo. If this is, indeed, his final film, Miyazaki, 73, is going out on a high note: The film is nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and it’s my pick for the award.

The Wind Rises stands as my favorite Miyazaki film. There’s a hand-drawn beauty to every frame; the sounds are astonishing; and, most importantly, it tells a compelling and heartbreaking story in a graceful and touching way.

We first meet Jiro as a young boy, as he dreams about airplanes. (This is also where we meet Caproni, who sometimes “shares” Jiro’s dreams.) Jiro’s early dreams contain the beauty and wonderment of flying—but they also include his plane disintegrating, and his body falling helplessly toward the ground. Jiro is a complicated sort.

The film then jumps to Jiro as a young man, heading to work in Tokyo on a train, when a frightening earthquake hits. This earthquake is the film’s most-stunning sequence, bolstered by exaggerated drawings of the earth rolling. It’s also here that we see Miyazaki’s extraordinary attention to detail. (The earthquake’s end is shown via a pile of small rocks, with the natural disaster coming to a pause after a couple of final, tiny stones tumble.)

Jiro helps a young woman and her younger sister, Nahoko, in the accident’s aftermath. They lose touch as Jiro goes to work under the tutelage of the cantankerous Kurokawa; he designs wing struts for a Japanese corporation that’s building warplanes. Jiro notices details in the bones from his mackerel lunch, and incorporates their sleekness into his designs. Through a series of dreams, paper airplanes and hard work, we eventually see the culmination of Jiro’s work: the bombers that will attack Pearl Harbor and turn Japan into one of the world’s most-sinister war machines.

Miyazaki doesn’t explore the politics of such an invention all that much. There are some rough dealings with German engineers, and brief mentions of Nazis and how Japan will eventually “blow itself up.” That particular statement is very eerie in a film that is so beautiful. We see the creation of the bombers from the designer’s standpoint; Jiro is the Walter Mitty of airplane daydreamers, in a sense. He simply wants to build majestic flying machines, with no political leanings toward their wartime significance.

A love story kicks into gear when Nahoko is reintroduced. She and Jiro come together and are married as Nahoko is in the throes of tuberculosis. As with his airplane dreams, his dreams of eternal love are hindered by the distinct hint of death.

The dream sequences with Caproni are full of wonderment. He and Jiro can walk on plane wings and observe huge passenger-plane prototypes that look like the Howard Hughes Spruce Goose. These beguiling sequences distinguish Miyazaki’s work from all other animated-film directors.

Miyazaki integrates human voices in a lot of his sound effects. You can hear them a bit when plane engines start up; it lends to the film’s organic feel. Those human voices work best when Tokyo catches fire during the earthquake sequences. The earth belches and moans as the fire starts, almost as if to say, “What’s about to happen here is really quite bad.” It’s a subtle, distinctive touch from Miyazaki.

We see those subtle touches in the visuals as well. Watch the way cigarette smoke billows from a smoker’s mouth, or the way vegetation reacts to hard raindrops. Everything is treated with an amazing amount of focus and detail. As amazing as Pixar’s computer-animated movies are, they miss the humanistic quality of a Miyazaki film.

I watched The Wind Rises with its original Japanese language track (with a little bit of German, Italian and French mixed in). The film is being released nationally with an English-dubbed track featuring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Jiro), Emily Blunt (Nahoko), Martin Short (Kurokawa) and Stanley Tucci (Caproni). English translations usually go OK with Miyazaki movies, but if you want to see it in the original Japanese, it’ll probably be included on future home-video releases.

I could see why, thematically, Miyazaki would want this to be his last animated feature; The Wind Rises feels like a proper culmination of his work. The selfish movie fan in me wants him to keep making movies as long as he breathes, but there’s something quite befitting and satisfying in the way this movie, and possibly Miyazaki’s film journey, comes to an end.

The Wind Rises opens Friday, Feb. 28, at theaters including the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 760-770-1615) and the Cinemas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews