Sprockets weekend: Lapislazuli, Island of Lost Souls, Show Tent

Sprockets got underway this weekend for its tenth-anniversary year, and I saw 3 films, two of which were terrific and all of which prove once again that if you want to see some childrens' cinema that doesn't talk down to its audience, international is the way to go. Austria, Denmark and Japan just kicked Hollywood's butt and walked away smiling, as far as I'm concerned.

Lapislazuli: In the Eye of the Bear and Island of Lost Souls bear a lot of initial similarities; both are about tween girls dealing with the recent loss of a parent who are thrust into fantastical situations. Both are great. The former vaguely recalls E.T., however, while the latter is clearly swinging for Harry Potter.

In Lapislazuli, 12-year-old Sophie runs away from home while her family is on vacation in the Alps, and encounters - wait for it - a recently-unfrozen Neanderthal boy. What Hollywood would turn into an exercise in broad humour and needless oversentimentality is, here, a friendly and accessible run-and-jump story for kids which is, among other things, impeccably made. Shot entirely on location in the mountains in Austria, every single shot is quite literally breathtaking.

Since the Neanderthal kid has not been brought here by time travel, the inevitable mechanics of a story like this mean that he's either going to have to be indoctrinated into 21st-century society ([shudder] Encino Man [shudder]), or... the other thing. The way Lapislazuli deals with its own endgame is a bit awkward, but it's carried through by a strong performance from Julia Krombach as Sophie, and the script's willingness to remind us that families may not be so nuclear any more, but the meaning is the same: the people you look out for, and who look out for you.

Lapislazuli repeat-sceens next Saturday and Sunday at Canada Square.

Island of Lost Souls is from Denmark and from the first frames we're clearly in Harry Potter territory: the film's title sequence even mimics the design of the Potterflix to a T. What's amazing here, then, is that I'm pretty confident in saying that Souls bests the Potter adaptations in pretty much every regard. It's Potter meets Goonies with some Temple of Doom and even a bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer thrown in, and I can't imagine a more potent cocktail than that.

This time our heroine is Lulu, who wakes up one night to find that her kid brother has been possessed by the spirit of a member of an 18th-century society of secret warriors. (Literally, called the Lodge for Battling Evil. Though they at least have the sense to make fun of the name.) Lulu and her hero-in-a-kid's-body brother, along with an unathletic next-door neighbour and the town's local Fox Mulder, are now drawn into a centuries-old blood battle against the Necromancer, an evil wizard making nasty business of capturing peoples' souls.

There's a terrific chase sequence with the Necromancer's right-hand goon, a living scarecrow (and boy howdy, he's a freaky, freaky scarecrow). There are more than a few surprising reversals along the way, and in the end, we get the required magical battle where each of the kids (and the Danish Mulder) will get to add a piece to the puzzle of Good triumphing over Evil. It's been a long time since I've seen a kids' movie that made me feel like the same over-imaginative 12-year-old I used to be, who read his Narnia books until they literally fell apart and watched Flight of the Navigator so many times he could recite entire scenes from memory.

Lost Souls also repeat-screens twice next weekend, on Saturday and Sunday. One word of caution: my screening today did not have the usual subtitle-reader for the kids, and the movie is intense enough to be pitched 10-and-up by Sprockets. If your youngling can't handle the subtitles on his or her own, or might be frightened by an evil scarecrow who successfully frightened me, you might have to skip this one.

Finally, When the Show Tent Came to My Town is an entry from Japan which is pitched the youngest of the three films I saw this weekend. It's probably the only one of the three that the adults aren't going to get much out of when they take the kids. It's a perfectly serviceable tale of a new girl arriving at a Japanese prep school, with all the attendant bullies / popularity contests / love rivalries that go along with such a thing. The storytelling, however, is kept strictly at the eye level of the characters in the movie (8-10 years old), without ever really telescoping up higher.

The young ones will enjoy a slight fable about standing up for yourself and being kind to other people, but otherwise there's not much going on here.

I'll be back next weekend with reviews of two more Sprockets films, the animated Japanese fantasy Brave Story, and the Dutch school drama Off-side.

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