Every year that I've gone to Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation, I've done so with less enthusiasm, not because the fest that discovered Beavis and Butthead and South Park has gotten any worse, or any more shocking, but because I've become more acutely aware of the meagerness of its rewards. There are always a few gems in this annual retrospective of defiantly scatological, sacrilegious or sadistic cartoons, but they're sunk in a (cess)pool of tedious, witless efforts.
That's why the 2001 edition, playing through Saturday, March 3, at the Valley Art Theatre in Tempe, is such a pleasant surprise. Even though it includes some duds, a startling number of these little sickies -- maybe even a majority -- are really worth watching, as long as you have a strong stomach.
Here are 17 mini-reviews:
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Angry Kid: These brief Brit blackouts, featuring a pesky red-haired boy, are from Aardman Animation, but they aren't at the level of that remarkable studio's best work. The kid's facial expressions are astonishingly subtle, but the vignettes lack payoffs.
Radioactive Crotch Man: An especially virile superhero with a nervous laugh gets his mojo purloined for a giant robot. Pretty funny.
Pussy da Red Nosed Reindeer: Walter Santucci's film puts a wise-guy spin on the holiday tale. I didn't see any credits -- is that Jake LaMotta narrating, as he did in Santucci's 1996 offering The Happy Moose? In any case, it's hilarious.
Monkey vs. Robot: A stirring song by James Kochalka Superstar about cooperation between the technological and the natural worlds is set to images by Geoff Marslett. It ought to become the new national anthem.
Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in All the World: In Q. Allan Brocka's eight-minute opus, stop-motion animated toys perform a biting script in which a lesbian couple ask a gay couple to provide them with sperm for a pregnancy. There are Broadway plays with less-well-written dialogue than this.
Stinky Monkey: Another monkey movie. David Lipson hints disturbingly at the potential for childhood cruelty in this technically ingenious encounter between a little girl and a monkey.
Beat the Brat: A quick lesson for kids in how to wield power over their parents. One of the less-inspired selections.
Mute & Motormouth in "Birth of Abomination": The title characters encounter a crack-addicted whore, witness her giving birth, and eat pizza. This one is really, really, really disgusting, but it does have a couple of Tex Avery-style gags that work.
Bowling for Souls: The devil is shown enjoying the title activity in this clever short from Od Wolfson. The visuals owe a debt to Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's Rat Fink.
The Hangnail: Shane Acker's film has a cute dog, an excruciating gross-out and poetic justice. What more can you ask, in less than two minutes?
Wheelchair Rebecca: A little girl's mother plays make-believe with her, suggesting horrible scenarios by which her doll might have ended up in a wheelchair. The clay animation in this nasty tidbit is reminiscent of Davy and Goliath.
Coco, the Junkie Pimp: Drearily shot marionettes perform a saga about a pimp that is also a parody of The Empire Strikes Back. It goes on way too long.
For the Birds: In this computer-generated piece from Pixar Studios, some birds on a high-tension wire get their comeuppance after they pick on a friendly, goofy larger bird. It isn't very sick or twisted, and it isn't on the level of some of Pixar's other stuff, notably Geri's Game. But it's still sort of cute.
Ghost of Stephen Foster: This video for the neo-swing outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers, by Raymond S. Persi and Matthew Nastuk, replicates with amazing accuracy the style of a '30s-era Fleischer cartoon, like Betty Boop. It's a highlight of the evening: elegant and funny visuals in support of a good song.
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Rejected: This is the other highlight. Don Hertzfeldt's non sequitur-spouting stick figures are here used to express the animator's own inability to adapt to a conventional or commercial style. It's hilarious at first, but Hertzfeldt gives the almost 10-minute film a finale that is joltingly apocalyptic.
Deep Sympathy: What would the evening be without a little necrophilia? This "bonus" film by Mike Grimshaw, while certainly revolting, is unfocused and poorly timed.
Sloaches Fun House: Spike is said to regard this clay-animation nightmare, yet another "bonus" selection, as "the sickest film ever!" He may be right, but it's also pointless and unfunny.
The evening also features some rerun odds and ends, including several adventures of the ever-victimized "No-Neck Joe."