Something is stirring in the world of Czech animation. The strength of a country's culture moves in waves, up and down, reacting to a constantly shifting set of unpredictable factors. But with the recent success of several Czech animation projects, it feels like an exciting new generation of animators has arrived on the scene.
For a country of such a relatively small size, the Czech Republic has always had a vibrant animation industry with many filmmakers who have made their mark on the global stage over previous decades. This strong history and tradition has given Czech animators a high level of international respect and provided a rich source of inspiration for Czech animators to draw on today, combining traditional skills with modern animation techniques and telling stories that are relevant for today's audiences - both children and adults.
These films are drawing big audiences at home but are also doing well at film festivals and international distribution. Central Europe has always regarded animation as an art form, rather than the 'cartoon factory' that it is perceived as more in the US. So while many fine commercially-oriented films are being created, they lack the budgets and broad appeal of Disney/Pixar and the US studios and struggle to compete. But in the world of arthouse animation, Czech filmmakers are among the best in the world right now.
There's also an encouragingly high percentage of female animators in the mix and perhaps it's this factor that is leading to stories and subjects being explored in new and fresh ways.
One of the hit Czech films of 2021 was Even Mice Belong in Heaven, co-directed by Denisa Grimmová and Jan Bubeníček, based on the book of the same name by Iva Procházková and produced by Fresh Films .
It opened in cinemas in October and ran for 16 weeks, managing to attract an impressive 110,000 viewers despite restrictions. It was the biggest Czech stop-motion project ever made, produced by the Czech Republic and France with co-production partners in Poland and Slovakia.
It tells the story of a mouse and a young fox cub who find themselves in animal heaven after an accident and the two natural-born enemies form an unlikely friendship as they set out on a series of adventures.
The film takes a potentially heavy subject (especially for a kid's film) and makes it an uplifting parable on the meaning of life, bringing it alive with beautiful stop-motion animation that pays homage to the films of Jiří Trnka combined with modern animation techniques.
Another animated Czech film making waves right now is My Sunny Maad, from director Michaela Pavlátová. Illustrator and film-maker Pavlátová has been a rising star of the film scene for several years now.
My Sunny Maad tells the story of an Czech woman who moves with her Afghan to his hometown of Kabul. They adopt an outcast child named Maad and are forced to deal with the discrimination they face. It’s a touching and deeply moving tale of humanity, tolerance, love and hope that is strikingly topical.
Screen Daily said the film has " A winning combination of gorgeous 2D animation and an involving storyline that will ensure that My Sunny Maad should appeal to animation fans and beyond".
Her feature-length animation debut was produced by major Czech production outfit Negativ Films who have been strong supporters of animation and produced the ground-breaking rotoscoped feature Alois Nebel in 2011 which was directed by Tomáš Luňák.
"Storytelling through animation has the unique possibility to attract a worldwide audience with universal, touching and strong stories without any "production restrictions". You can take your absolute, unlimited imagination and bring emotions and human stories to the big screen. We have discovered this “freedom” coming from animation for ourselves at Negativ and hope to continue with more feature animation development very soon."
Petr Oukropec, Negativ producer, My Sunny Maad
Short Czech animated films are thriving thanks to the Czech national film school FAMU and though shorts once provided the stepping board from which filmmakers could move on to bigger projects, it is now an established and flourishing format in its own right .
Special mention needs to go to the incredible Love is Just a Death Away by Bara Anna Stejskalová. This heartwarming tale of love and death (and more death) follows cuddly parasite Steve as he looks for a soulmate amongst the rotting carcasses and trash of a rubbish tip.It's beautifully made stop-motion fable in the dark style of a young Tim Burton.
Daria Kashcheeva's FAMU student film Daughter won accolades and awards around the world. She is now working on her follow-up film Elektra: A Poem which uses a mix of animation and live action.
The Red Shoes by Anna Podskalská is another FAMU film that taps into the current vogue for folk horror and is inspired by the folk stories of Karel Erben.
There are plenty of other animated projects in development to keep an eye on.
Slovak-born Aurel Klimt is the spiritual heir of Jiri Trnka and has been creating beautiful stop motion animation for the last two decades through his Zvon Studios. He made his mark with the Fimfarum films, based on the book of Jan Werich. In 2017 he created Laika, a film about the first dog in space. He is currently working on an adaptation of Karel Čapek's classic novel The War with Newts and this highly anticipated film will hopefully arrive in 2024.
Rosentaal is described as a steampunk polar road movie and is being directed by renowned Czech actor Miroslav Krobot with a script by Marek Epstein and design by Václav Švankmajer, son of Jan Švankmajer. It's being produced by Maur Film.
Fans of Czech animation who are in Prague this summer should make sure they check out the Worlds of Czech Animation exhibition which runs until June.