Like a stop-motion “Toy Story,” Czech animator Jiri Barta’s “In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today?” reveals the secret life of forgotten toys, reflecting the same fantasy logic children use when playing with puppets and dolls. Of course, since it takes a painstaking frame-by-frame process to create the effect onscreen, Barta’s technique reflects the lo-fi end of an animation style very much in vogue today. The subtitled version shown at the AFI Fest was tough on tykes, but once dubbed, this handcrafted toon could earn a decent U.S. following.
While the humans aren’t looking, four antique playthings — blond-haired doll Buttercup, threadbare Teddy, rickety marionette knight Sir Handsome and a spastic ball of clay who calls himself Schubert — come to life, holding tea parties in the dusty suitcase they call home. Venturing out for a train ride, the toys are separated from one another.
With a black cat to do his bidding, the villainous Head succeeds in kidnapping Buttercup and luring her back to the Land of Evil — an especially dark and dusty corner of the attic ruled by the plaster bust of a fallen communist leader (actually, the real head of Czech actor Jiri Labus, animated in stop-motion style, a la Aardman’s “Sledgehammer” musicvideo). And as Buttercup’s three closest friends embark on an epic rescue mission, their quest is well served by Barta’s ingenuity in giving new meaning to everyday household objects.
Because the characters themselves are all vintage toys with fixed features and a limited range of movement, Barta can only achieve so much expressiveness (the exception being Schubert). But despite their inflexible faces, Barta conceives all sorts of inventive ways to bring these inanimate objects to life. And though the result feels old-fashioned — like a Brothers Quay twist on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale — there’s no way Barta could have made this film 20 years ago (when his last stop-motion short was released).
Should a given shot prove too tricky to accomplish practically, Barta has no qualms about using digital compositing to blend multiple stop-motion plates. Though rudimentary, fire and water effects are especially effective, and Barta even mixes in some very basic hand-drawn animation for good measure (not to mention a few live-action bits featuring the elderly lady and granddaughter who live in the house below).
For all its charms, “In the Attic” feels vaguely sinister and may prove too intense for younger kids — a testament to the film’s pacing and score, as well as how deeply auds emotionally connect with these occasionally macabre toy characters.