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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Kids playing capture the flag doesn’t necessarily make for a good movie. Even when they use toy guns and water-balloon grenades, it’s not so fascinating. But put real weapons in the hands of those children and you’ve changed something. Whether it’s a good idea morally or cinematically is harder to say. If you’re intrigued, you can see for yourself at I Declare War, a Canadian film from director Jason Lapeyre.

Child actors get real weapons training
Child actors get real weapons training

A group of kids play Capture the Flag (or “War” as they call it). The only actors are children — there are no adults. The only cinematic gimmick is that after Lapeyre establishes that the kids are using wire-and-stick guns, he replaces them with genuine, authentic weapons of war. The change is unsettling because it’s impossible to tell if the real weapons are Lapeyre’s way of saying: “this could get real.”

Or perhaps they just illustrated how seriously the kids the game — after all, they are learning how to cooperate and compete, how to win and lose, how to get along as human beings. These are matters of life and death, bred into us by thousands of generations of social survival. One of the most important lessons has to do with playing by the rules. There are rules, and at first everyone plays by them. But when you are losing, you quickly realize that rules are just a social construct, and not a natural or unviersal law. Yet breaking the rules in a game can cost you prestige and charisma in real life.

The film has some memorable personalities. PK (Gage Munroe) is a small general who takes the game seriously; he always wins, and he invites his lieutenant to come over after the game for pizza and to watch Patton. Skinner (Michael Friend) is a hothead driven by jealousy. He doesn’t want to follow orders and is willing to kill his commander to have his way. Another one of the boys is fascinated by disgust and revulsion. He asks “deep questions” like “would you accept free video games for life, if it meant you had to lose your dick?” Only one of the participants is a girl, Jess (Mackenzie Munroe). And while most of the participants are on the young side of puberty, the threat of hormonal warfare looms large.

I Declare War is the kind of film that seems ripe for allegory, but it’s no Lord of the Flies. Rather than going for something grand, Lapeyre keeps the story dialed in to the game and the participants. Only the presence of those real weapons will keep you on edge.