Friday, November 21, 2003

REVIEW: The Animation Show

Seen Sunday, 16 November 2003, at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

I don't recall a "Spike & Mike's Festival of Classic Animation" either this or last year, which is too bad - I never was terribly interested in the "Sick & Twisted" one, there's something of an after-the-fact feeling about the "Oscar's Shorts" package at the Coolidge (and, presumably, the one that played Copley Square this summer), and what you get for animated shorts at the Boston Film Festival is pretty slim pickings. Happily, though, Don Hertzfledt and Mike Judge have teamed up to present this new collection of animated shorts, which they intend to make a yearly event.

Focused as it was on recent Academy Award nominees, I'd seen a number of these shorts before. For the most part, this was an uneven show, but the good shorts were very good indeed. I'll just run down what I saw in (roughly) the order of presentation:

  • "Welcome To The Show" by Don Hertzfeldt (2003) - Even though Hertzfeldt is probably the most simplistic animator in the show, he's also one of the funniest working today. Here, two of the little fluffy guys from "Rejected" (who look like cornflakes to me) show up to explain what animation is. It being a Hertzfeldt short, it starts out just looking odd and quickly becomes surreal.

  • "Strange Invaders" by Cordell Barker (2001) - Sort of cute, in a grotesque way. A childless couple who watches the neighborhood's children from their telescope. When a spacecraft crashes nearby, the tiny, big-headed alien inside seems like fine baby, but their dog knows different. This is one that seems to go out of its way to look bizarre, which is a style I'm not overly fond of.

  • "Mt. Head (Atama Yama)" by Koji Yamamura (2002) - I saw this in March at "We've Got Oscar's Shorts"; it didn't appeal to me terribly then, and I like it just a little better now. It's got some amusing parts, and some nice visuals, but ultimately plays like a fable without a moral.

  • "Ricardo" short-shorts by ??? (????) - The stop-motion is good, but I'm always unsure with this type of bit - are they supposed to be making fun of a retarded kid or laughing with his youthful naiveté?

  • Excerpt from "Mars And Beyond" by Ward Kimball (1957) - Wow. I don't believe I've ever seen this, but I am really, really hoping that Disney includes the complete version on the upcoming "Tomorrowland" Walt Disney Classics set. What you've got here is science-fictional imagination combined with smooth Disney animation, and it's just phenomenal.

  • "Ident" by Richard Goleszowski (1989) - An early work from Aardman Animation. Like a lot of the shorts here, it's going for surrealism, but I find I've got to either get some sort of story or idea from it unless it looks really pretty to enjoy it.

  • "Billy's Balloon" by Don Hertzfeldt (1998) - Yeah, this is some nasty, twisted stuff. It's also gut-bustingly funny, and the movie that first made me love Don's work despite the obvious crudity.

  • "Katedra" by Tomek Baginski (2002) - Another I'd seen before, but this one grew on me. It still comes off more as a tech demo than a short on its own, but it does manage to tell a story and look real good without any dialog, a real plus in a visual medium.

  • "Intermission In The Third Dimension" by Don Hertzfeldt (2003) - Pretty straightforward; characters in a two-dimensional medium expressing awe and wonder at a mythical "third dimension" was done on a Simpsons Halloween episode once, and jokes about the lameness of 3-D movies are shooting fish in a barrel. It still manages an enjoyable absurdity.

  • "La course a L'Abime" by Georges Schwizgebel (1992) - Nifty piece with a painted appearance. No real story, but it does look and sound pretty.

  • "Parking" by Bill Plympton (2003) - One of the new entries, a very funny Plympton work about a parking lot attendant trying to eradicate the small plant which threatens the pristine beauty of his asphault, while impatient patrons just want to park their cars.

  • "50 Percent Grey" by Ruairi Robinson (2001) - Slickly rendered CGI with a soldier not coping with the afterlife very well. Kind of a bleak, one-joke short.

  • "Early Pencil Tests and Other Experiments" by Mike Judge (ca. 1990) - Mostly amusing stuff. I liked "Inbred Jed" the best, and still have no idea what people find so funny about "Office Space". I did find it kind of odd that the two co-producers of this festival are the ones whose animations are perhaps the least advanced technically

  • "Vincent" by Tim Burton (1982) - My brother was somewhat surprised that Disney produced something like this, not aware that Disney occasionally had a little edge, pre-Eisner. This is certainly a treat to see, though, stop-motion in a style that is about one evolutionary step away from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Can't go far wrong with Vincent Price's narration, either.

  • "Rejected" by Don Hertzfeldt (2000) - "Rejected" being nominated for an Oscar is about the most surprising thing I can remember about the awards. If you haven't seen it, it's simply hilarious, at once a parody of the pap audiences often expect and the incoherent work artists often supply. Really, sublimely absurd.

  • "Das Rad" by Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel, and Heidi Wittlinger (2001) - I think this should have won the Oscar over "The Chubbchubbs"; the stop-motion effect is nice and the basic idea of observing civilization in "rock-time" was very clever.

  • "The End Of The Show" by Don Hertzfeldt (2003) - I laughed so hard at this. I won't describe it, except to say that my brother and I were yelling "ROBOTS!" at each other all afternoon.

  • Looking over the list, I come across as more critical than I mean to be. While none of these shorts except possibly "Mars And Beyond" are perfect, keep in mind that most of those paragraphs took longer to write than the shorts did to watch, and my first reaction was almost uniformly positive. Also, it was great to see all those styles together, showing off the range of animation as a medium.

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