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In terms of animated films, one of my favorite features from the 2010s was 2016’s Long Way North. While it was an animated film, it told a more mature story about a girl who went north to find her grandfather and protect his and her family’s legacy. Remi Chaye and his team made a compelling experience with some truly out of this world animation. It’s always a good reminder that a lot of films and shows from overseas are not made just for kids or just for adults. Storytelling in animation can span a wide grayscale of tones, themes, and experiences. The rest of the world has gotten this, and a good example of this is Chaye’s film from 2020, Calamity: a Childhood of Martha Jane Canary.
Directed by Remi Chaye, written by Chaye, Sandra Tosello, Fabrice De Costil, and produced by Maybe Movies, Calamity made it big last year at the Annecy International Film Festival as the film that took home the main prize. It has gotten glowing reviews since its October release in France, and made its US debut in 2021 at the Animation First Festival alongside fellow acclaimed French film Josep. Of course, if it wasn’t obvious, this is an adaptation of the story of the famed frontier woman of the same name. So, with the year still being young, and the world of animation looking vibrant as usual, let’s dive in and see what this film is all about.
Our story revolves around a young girl named Martha Jane Canary, voiced by Salome Boulven. She is traveling with her father and siblings in a caravan to Oregon. While her family is not liked because of classism shenanigans, Martha is annoyed about how she is looked down upon due to her being a girl. Even the other girls and women don’t go out of their roles in the caravan. After some upsets, like her father getting injured and Martha having to take responsibility and control of her cart and family, Martha encounters a supposed northern soldier. He decides to help her and her people out, but then one night, the soldier leaves, and not only that, supposedly stole items from some of the families. Of course, with this being the period that it is, Martha is framed for the thievery and decides to go on a journey to reclaim the stolen goods. Along the way, she is joined by a dog named Pik, a young man trying to find his way in this land, and a woman who runs a mining company looking for gold.
If I had to pick a theme or a topic of what this film is all about, it’s about how we are perceived in this world. Whether it’s by our wealth, gender, or occupation, this film has a lot of focus on identity and how you define who you are. You can see that commentary throughout the film as you observe the small character-based interactions. Of course, with this being a western, there is a lot of lasso-throwing, adventure, and exploration through the wild. You will find yourself going through the lavish open fields and countryside, small mining towns, and encounters with Native Americans. Luckily, the encounter with the Native Americans in the film is brief but way more respectful than you would think. If this film was made in the 60s and 70s, that might be a different story, and Martha doesn’t disrespect them or talk down to them. It’s a rough world in Calamity, as our lead character has to deal with discrimination and sexism due to her gender. Martha is a great female lead as she’s tough, takes no bull from the boys and men she encounters, but is not just spunk and grit. She’s vulnerable and has a tomboyish side to her as well. She’s on par with Chaye’s previous film’s lead. While the boy she encounters after leaving her group starts out annoying and a bit much, he does get fleshed out and you get his entire arc by the end of the film. Even Samson, the northern soldier has some of the better moments in the film. It’s a wildly fleshed out film, and while there are some antics and goofy moments, they never feel like they talk down to the audience and are fairly funny. The entire experience with the story and watching this film feels more like a True Grit or News of the World than a Magnificent 7 or some melodramatic western drama.
Since this is by the same director behind Long Way North, you can expect the film to look downright amazing. No shock, it does look amazing. Its mix of 2D and CGI animation is gorgeous, and while there are points where you can tell what is CGI, it’s pretty consistent overall and the noticeable parts aren’t major. I love how the bodies and the world around them don’t have black outlines, and it gives a distinct look with its soft greens, browns, yellows, and oranges. It feels like a painting of the west in motion. The music by Florence Di Concilio is delightfully western with a heavy emphasis on string instruments. It’s a fantastic soundtrack with a cute song sung by a children’s choir during the credits. The voice cast is pretty good, but I have to say that my favorite performances were from Salome Boulven, Alexandra Lamy, Alexis Tomassian, Jochen Hagele, and Leonard Louf. The overall cast was great.
Outside of some slightly clunky CGI moments, and some of the side characters being fairly forgettable, I adored Calamity. It’s a film that shows how to write female characters well, tell a satisfying and grown-up story without having to dabble in dark and edgy for edgy sake content. It talks to you like it considers you it’s equal. Once this film gets a wider release, and a US distributor, I think everyone should watch it! I have heard rumbles there is a US distributor, but I can’t say it with full-on faith until I’m proven right. Still, if you can find some way to watch this movie, do so! Now then, one Animation First film down, and one more to go. Next time, I’m going to review the acclaimed French animated drama, Josep.
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