During the late '60s and early '70s, hot on the heels of the successful counterculture revival of Fantasia (sold as a psychedelic experience to the potent hippy demographic), animators were looking for an avenue to display their often overlooked wares. Using a road show approach and targeting arthouses nationwide, cartoon compendiums from Europe and the US crisscrossed the country, providing artists an avenue to feature their films. With names like The Fantastic Animation Festival and the Tournee of Animation (and later, the '80s Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation), these sensational showcases gave mainstream audiences a chance to experience what only a select few used to view and enjoy. Now modern filmmakers Mike Judge and Don Hertzfelder have started their own enterprise. Following the model set out before, they present The Animation Show, a wandering anthology of cartoon shorts. Now, thanks to Paramount and MTV DVD, we get a chance to see the first two "volumes" in this breathtaking showcase. Within its nearly four hours of content, we have some truly amazing animated movies.
Offered on two separate discs, the best way to approach this package is to look at each film separately. That way, a consumer can decide whether the subject matter interests them, and if, in their mind, this set is worth a purchase. Let's being with:
Title: Welcome to the Show
Director: Don Hertzfelder
Score: ** (out of *****)
Plot: Two fluffy clouds discuss the process of animation – and all Hell breaks loose.
Review: As he will demonstrate all throughout the weird works he offers here, co-creator Hertzfelder loves to find the anarchic and the surreal in the simplest of situations. Here, our anthropomorphic blobs start out basic, and then go ballistic in trying to explain cartooning. It's clever, creative stuff.
Title: Mt. Head
Director: Koji Yamamura
Plot: A miserable man soon discovers a tree growing from his head.
Review: From a purely visual standpoint, this pen and ink masterwork has enough optical beauty for several shorts. Unfortunately, the narrative seems muddled, creating an allegory about sense of self that gets sort of lost in the translation.
Director: Adam Elliot
Plot: A sibling looks back on his life with his problematic older brother.
Review: Nothing short of brilliant. Elliot, an Oscar winning animator from Australia, uses his wicked sense of humor and genius writing style (his narrations play like the finest fiction) to create little stop motion snapshots of families in disarray. This excellent look at sibling rivalry is dense, dark and simply enchanting.
Director: Bill Plympton
Plot: A parking lot attendant battles a blade of grass for public space supremacy.
Review: Though the ending is a tad too clever for its own good (it's so pat it makes it appear as if the story was scripted from the finale backward), Plympton's slapstick heavy style saves what could have been cloying. Lots of inventive imagery to go along with the environmental message.
Title: The Adventures of Ricardo
Director: Corky Quackenbush
Plot: A likable, lisping four year old discusses his views on life.
Review: Reminiscent of Pee Wee's Playhouse in its claymation craziness, Quackenbush's animation style is all off model and tactile. While the stories can be stupid (there are three Ricardo tales in all on Volume 1), these mini movies offer occasionally incisive looks at life while cramming in as much baffling baby talk as possible. Good, but not great.
Title: Moving Illustrations of Machines
Director: Jeremy Solterbeck
Plot: A series of organic illustrations offers startling glimpses of mechanics in motion.
Review: Symbolic and symmetrical, stunning in its juxtaposition of light and dark, this monochrome marvel uses ambient music to sell a free flowing view of industrial intricacy. It is an amazingly well done piece.
Title: La Course A L'Abime
Director: Geoerges Schwizgebel
Plot: A country setting sees figures move throughout a constantly flowing backdrop.
Review: Looking like an old master's painting come to chaotic life, Schwizgebel used an old technique (something similar to a Praxinoscope) to realize his ideas. The results are clever and creative, though some may find it to be nothing but pretty pictures in constant motion.
Title: Billy's Balloon
Director: Don Hertzfelder
Plot: Children are tortured and tormented by their favorite inflatable toy.
Review: You've got to give Hertzfelder credit. Only he could pull off this Night of the Living Balloon like parody and get away with it. Just the thought of child endangerment would give most audiences pause. The way he uses humor to soften the various blows is mindboggling.
Director: Adam Elliot
Plot: A relative recalls the time spent with his strange cousin.
Review: One can't say enough about Elliot's efforts. They so perfectly capture their characters and moments you feel overwhelmed with detail, and desperate for more.
Title: The Cathedral
Director: Tomek Baginski
Plot: A interplanetary explorer stumbles upon a "living" structure on a strange planet.
Review: Without providing a great deal of narrative background, director Baginski drops us in the middle of a cosmic eclipse, and uses the event to explore a remarkable CG cathedral. There is lots of intrigue here, and the details are incredible. Thankfully, the ending supports, not shatters, the enigmatic set up.
Title: Intermission in the Third Dimension
Director: Don Hertzfelder
Plot: Our clouds discuss 3-D
Review: Cute filler material with lots of jokes and goofing around.
Title: 50 Percent Gray
Director: Ruairi Robinson
Plot: A solider tries to find his way out of a perplexing post-mortem problem.
Review: Allegories about Heaven and Hell can be heavy handed and visually uninteresting. Here, Robinson presents a computer generated wonder. Just bloody enough for gorehounds, but also evocative enough to make its afterlife choice points wisely.
Director: Adam Elliot
Plot: After the loss of his wife, a strange family member gets even odder.
Review: Though far more serious than his other films presented, Uncle is another exceptional example of Elliot's way with words. Brilliantly realized and full of thought provoking themes.
Title: Early Pencil Tests and Other Experiments
Director: Mike Judge
Plot: Various animation ideas – includes the original Office Space featuring Milton
Review: Showing there is more to his resume than a couple of teenage slackers laughing at inappropriate and implied innuendos, this collection of Judge's cartoon scraps does have one stellar example of his dry, droll wit. You better laugh, or Milton might just burn down the theater.
Title: Bathtime in Clerkenwell
Director: Alex Budovsky
Plot: A cuckoo bird gets sick of his clock work. Chaos ensues.
Review: Using a silhouette style that recalls old silent films from the turn of the century, filmmaker Budovsky shows his obvious Eastern European influences (he's an immigrant by way of Russia) in this Hellsapoppin' look at nature vs. the mechanics of mankind.
Director: Pjotr Sapegin
Plot: An Asian woman falls for a Western sailor.
Review: More or less a literal translation of Madame Butterfly, Aria uses Puccino's score and story to tell a tale about love, abandonment and the way West uses and abuses the East. The stop motion work is simply stunning, complex in its character design and sweeping in its visual backdrop. Those who love the opera will certainly enjoy this unique take on its subject matter. Others will be swept away on Sapegin's sensational images.
Title: The Rocks
Director: Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel, heidi Willinger
Plot: Two complaining rock formations kvetch as civilization rises and falls around them.
Review: While the environmental/modernization message is a little too loud and clear here, what we end up with is a very funny, very insightful look at how man takes nature for granted – almost always to its eventual destruction. As our arguing stone effigies point out the various changes in the world, we see wonderful stop motion examples of evolution in overdrive. A great example of idea and execution.
Director: Studio Soi
Plot: An experiment in duplication and repetition as rabbits go about their routine.
Review: Absurdist in its approach and complex in its creation, this look at movement on multiple scales and many competing levels is like watching a puzzle replay and reposition itself. There are so many mesmerizing moments here that repeated viewings are warranted just to capture it all.
Title: Guard Dog
Director: Bill Plympton
Plot: A paranoid pup wants to protect his master at all costs.
Review: Like an old silent film gag writer, Plympton uses his hilarious premise to load the screen with joke after joke. Most work, a few fail, but the overall result is pure comedic creativity. While the ending is a little obvious, our safety-obsessed ball of fur is an incredible cartoon creation – worthy of his own series of shorts.
Title: The F.E.D.S.
Director: Jennifer Drummond
Plot: Food Demonstrators discuss the pitfalls and pleasures of their profession.
Review: Using the computer-generated rotoscoping that made movies like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly so memorable, Jennifer Drummond interviews female food samplers, and gets to the heart of their humbling, sometimes horrifying job. While the words sell their stories, the visuals help them sink in.
Title: Pan With Us
Director: David Russo
Plot: A series of images show nature in all its many forms.
Review: Using a combination of pen and ink and stop motion approaches, Russo does a very interesting thing here. He allows his images to be animated against real world backdrops (a bird soars through a city tunnel, a series of images travel down a deserted highway). It's an incredible juxtaposition, and makes for an interesting expression of art.
Title: Ward 13
Director: Peter Cornwell
Plot: After an accident, a perplexed patient tries to escape an evil hospital.
Review: Call it Mad Max in Intensive Care, or the ultimate stop motion action piece, but it's clear you've never seen a short film like Ward 13. Mixing horror, humor and an overabundance of visual invention, this slam bang story plays like Wallace and Gromit in an insane asylum. The final gurney chase through the hospital halls is heart-stoppingly brilliant.
Director: Jonathan Nix
Plot: A cassette player man needs a new song to attract the attention of a CD girl.
Review: A fascinating idea, flawlessly realized. Nix uses the idea of changing technology (our hero is a figure with an old fashioned boom box for a head) to show how individuals must modify their approach to find the proper way of communicating with one another. The set up is sweet and the pay off is just perfect.
Director: Tim Miller
Plot: A planetary surveyor sets out to locate a subterranean species.
Review: This is it – the most magnificent, jaw dropping film in the entire two disc series. Without ruining any of the jokes or spectacular visual surprises, Tim Miller takes the notion of fishing to a whole other level here. The character design is amazing, the action realistic and nail biting, and the finale a full blown work of CGI art. Among the many reasons to purchase this DVD collection, Rockfish ranks #1.
Director: Chel White
Plot: The story of a chance meeting between a lonely man and a contortionist.
Review: Told in stop motion using artist model, Magda has a good beginning and middle, but then simply fades away instead of ending with a bang. We feel for these faceless characters, and see where White intends on taking them. Sadly, the start of the story doesn't result in a convincing finale.
Title: Fallen Art
Director: Tomek Baginski
Plot: A strange set up is used so that an amateur animator has "cells" for his films.
Review: As he did with Cathedral, Baginski uses some incredible CG work to tell a bizarre tale of the military, human sacrifice, and a hunchbacked cratfsman using the 'results' for his art. Exaggerated in its character design but detailed in all other facets of filmmaking, Baginski delivers a remarkable piece of animated excellence.
Title: When the Day Breaks
Director: Amanda Forbis, Wendy Tilby
Plot: A group of metropolitan animals find their lives inadvertently interlocked.
Review: Surreal, and sort of pointless, this look at a group of humanized critters living their unusual urban lives is a strange combination of rotoscoped images and hand drawn artistry. The story makes little sense, the character touches created by the directors adding up to nothing more than a series of sketches. Had there been a stronger storyline, we'd have a very interesting film. As it stands, this is merely a creative curiosity.
Plot: Candy, coins and various household products become the title treat.
Review: Stop motion magic using everyday objects as a way of symbolizing a celebration. PES presents a unique approach to visualization, allowing the everyday and the mundane to stand in for the extravagant and the unusual.
Title: The Meaning of Life
Director: Don Hertzfelder
Plot: A look at life, from evolution to the lack of modern communication.
Review: Hertzfelder's weird walk through the birth – and the baffling – of man is a merry prankster putdown of our static state of social inertia. Using his standard stick figures, the artist walks us through a planet where people bleat like goats and strange creatures croak like tired toads. While its points sometimes fail to connect, the end result is something silly and very special.
With both volumes presented in a 1.33:1 full screen image, it is safe to say that the transfer of these titles is professional, if problematic. Several are shortchanged by not being presented in a non-anamorphic letterboxed style. Specifically, Cathedral, Fifty Percent Gray, Aria, The Rocks, Bunnies, Pan with Us, Rockfish, Magda and Fallen Art all have widescreen ambitions, but are only given the top and bottom black bar treatment. Still, the colors are vibrant and the details rich and resplendent – especially in the several stop motion and CGI efforts.
Again, all titles are given the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 polish, whether they want it or not. It would appear that, for the majority of these short films, such a sonic situation is perfectly fine. But a few of the movies here have big screen aspirations (Rockfish, for example) and the limited channel choice really dampens the overall effectiveness of the filmmaking.
While not overflowing with added content, each disc does contain a nice selection of bonus features. Our first DVD offers audio commentaries by Bill Plympton (interesting) and Corey Quackenbush (only fair), Mike Judge pencil tests (decent) and Don Hertzfelder's discussion on how certain special effects can be created in two dimensional animation (really fun and enlightening). There are also galleries of concept art and character design for Mt. Head, a look at various tests for The Cathedral, a storyboard to scene comparison for La Course A L'Abime and a production photo album for The Rocks. All this material is intriguing and supplements these films rather well. The second DVD contains a featurette (100 Years of Animation) that details the rise and fall of these kinds of festivals, a look at how F.E.D.S., Fallen Art and Madga were made, a new short film by Chet White and a new film by PES entitled Kaboom. It features the odd contrast of toys/gifts and warfare to make a stunning visual indictment of combat. Overall, the complementary material really does help our understanding of the films, and a fantastic 40 page book features interviews and essays with the artists. It makes for a good all around digital package and presentation.
Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, The Animation Show has a little of something for everyone. From old fashioned cartoon cleverness to the latest in cutting computer technology, the talent and techniques on display here argue for the artforms place amongst the highest categories of cinema. It's a shame that animation has become so synonymous with children and kid vid programming. In some ways, there is more in the pen and ink effort to enthrall adults than a wee one could even comprehend. It is clear that when ideas meet innovation, magical things can happen. Thanks to individuals like Mike Judge and Don Hertzfelder we get a chance to witness this motion picture prestidigitation first hand. The Animation Show is a marvelous moving picture treat. Fans of the genre should snap it up immediately, while newcomers can simply sit back and enjoy a compendium of creative wonders.
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