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Animation Show 2005, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/10/05 00:28:56

"Simply dazzling. When's the next one?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2005 DEEP FOCUS FILM FESTIVAL: Ah, the animation festival. A fine tradition in the art house community, a chance to see short films in a society that has no real place for short films. For those of you jonesing for a Spike and/or Mike fix, may I suggest “The Animation Show,” a new bit of evolving cartoon short goodness, this one from Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt.

I did not see the first go ’round of this series, from 2003, so I cannot compare the 2005 batch to what came before. What I can do, however, is run down this year’s selections and inform you that there’s enough quality material here to ensure that “The Animation Show” is bound to be a festival eagerly awaited and, hopefully, very long-running.

The films, in the order they’re shown:

“Bunnies,” 2002, directed by Jakob Schuh and Saschka Unseld. Fast, frantic, fun, this teeny clip from Germany gets co-opted to be the festival’s title sequence. A cute way of starting the show.

“Guard Dog,” 2003, directed by Bill Plympton. If you’re an animation fan, you not only know the name Bill Plympton, but chances are you get giddy at its mere mention. “Guard Dog” lives up to the fine Plympton name, with its deliciously bizarre tale of an overprotective, overly imaginative dog out for a walk. Sick, violent, and extremely hilarious. Plus, Plympton’s unique visual style is always beautiful in its own twisted way.

“The F.E.D.S.,” 2002, directed by Jen Drummond. The title stands for “Food Education Demo Specialists,” or, in other words, people that hand out samples in supermarkets. Drummond’s work is fascinating: an animated documentary that rotoscopes (think “Waking Life”) interviews with the F.E.D.S., the result being something mysteriously captivating. Smushing the two formats together is a bold choice that works better than it sounds. The tinkering of reality made me smile and smile. (And hey, just on a mere documentary level, it’s still pretty cool stuff.)

“Pan With Us,” 2003, directed by David Russo. Here’s a piece of animation that serves to remind us just how painstaking animation is. Set to the narration of a Robert Frost poem, we see animator Russo’s own hands guiding the ever-changing imagery, which flies by so quickly (and yet, in one brief shot utilizing shadows, took an entire day to film) that our mind boggles at the effort given just to simulate branches blowing in the wind, or a bird in flight. “Pan With Us” is probably the least exciting short here, but as an example of the magic and torture of animation, it’s the perfect selection for such a program.

It should be noted that “Pan With Us” is the last short here in which actual dialogue plays a major role. The rest of the films here rely either on no language at all, or bits of gibberish, or music. The point being that from here on in, this is storytelling of a purely visual nature. Kinda nifty.

“Ward 13,” 2003, directed by Peter Cornwell. Unquestionably the festival’s finest piece, this bit of Aussie madness utilizes stop motion animation (technically not “Claymation,” but close enough for me to reference the copyrighted term) to tell what I can best describe as an action-horror-comedy. Guy wakes up in a mysterious hospital, tries to escape, faces mad doctors, monsters, and hockey mask-wearing orderlies along the way. It’s a work of pure genius, that’s what it is. It flies along at mach speed, turning into one of the best chase sequences I’ve seen in years. Thrilling, manic, scary, sometimes hilarious, this movie alone is worth the full price of admission.

“Hello,” 2003, directed by Jonathan Nix. Now it’s time to get your heart broken. In this unbearably sweet piece, we find a boy with a tape deck for a head, who’s smitten with the girl across the hall, who has a CD player for a noggin. She can cut through tracks fast enough to say “Hello, Charlie!” (in the most touching way such a phrase is possible), but he can’t get all his cassettes out in time to let her know how she feels. Achingly beautiful and gorgeously hand drawn, I loved every enchanting frame of this film.

“Rockfish,” 2002, directed by Tim Miller/Blur Studio. For fans of CGI animation, here we have a short that improves on the photorealism of “Final Fantasy” and “The Polar Express” - and although the story’s about as iffy as those two, at least here the movie wraps up just as it’s starting to wear thin. It’s a quick yarn about a hardbodied space ranger and his goofy alien pal who land on a rock-infested planet, drill a hole, and cast a line. The furious action that follows is solid stuff, even if it’s not particularly memorable.

“L’homme Sans Ombre (The Man Without a Shadow),” 2004, directed by Georges Schwizgebel. Worth catching mainly for the dazzling painted visuals that morph and remorph in such a way that you can’t help but say “wow.” The story finds a man meeting the devil and selling not his soul but his shadow, a decision that has unsuspected consequences. What follows becomes a thing of genuine beauty.

“Fallen Art,” 2004, directed by Tomek Baginski. Nothing says “the army life’s not for me” than a cartoon about soldiers jumping to their death just so some higher up can snap a picture of the bloody corpse, with even more devious actions to come. This is as dark and as bitter as they come, people, a mean, nasty little work that’s also quite brilliant. Naturally, my cynical side had me loving it.

“When the Day Breaks,” 1999, directed by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby. This, the oldest cartoon in the lineup, is the one work here that I’d seen before (caught it on late night cable) - and since I first saw it, I’d been aching to see it again. Pigs, roosters, and other animals stand in for lonely humans lost in the big city, and what begins as a cute, breezy comedy evolves into a shattering visual poem on loneliness. The animation is breathtaking, the story heartbreaking. I’m glad I got to see it a second time - but now, of course, I can’t wait to see it a third.

“Fireworks,” 2004, directed by PES. Neato teeny bit in which candy and coins become fireworks. Pretty fun. (Its 25-second running time and the fact that it ends with a plug for its maker, PES, got the woman seated near me to think they snuck a commercial for Pez into the program. No kidding.)

“The Meaning of Life,” 2005, directed by Don Hertzfeldt. Oh, I have no idea what the hell this one’s about. Hertzfeldt, who masters in stick figure animation, here begins silly, then gets weird, then ultimately hands in something astonishing. The film begins with a barrage of people repeating their given line in life: “I’m sorry.” “Give me your money.” “Stop following me!” But then, well… are we seeing the evolution of life on Earth? A glimpse at life on the countless other planets we soon see, dancing around the universe? Hmm. No matter what your take on the short, there’s no denying its sense of wonder. The final shots of dancing stars and swirling galaxies - all done by hand, no computers - are glorious.

So ends this year’s edition of “The Animation Show.” While not all of the selections here are masterpieces, all of them have something interesting enough to offer. Consider me hooked.

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