Film Reviews

Toons of Glory

Spike and Mike's Classic Festival of Animation is the other yearly film anthology from the same two Californians--Spike Decker and Mike Gribble--who concoct Spike & Mike's Festival of Sick and Twisted Animation. Like Sick and Twisted, their annual blowout of scatology, sacrilege and sensationalistic sex, the Classic festival is a mixed bag. While the approach in Sick and Twisted is sheer anarchy--anything for a laugh or shudder--the Classic version, as the title would suggest, has a more rarefied atmosphere.

The style of the shorts tends to be more artful, the content less sophomoric. Yet the effect in both of the collections is usually the same: We're shown entries that are technically impressive, yet ultimately tedious, and, conversely, scrappy low-tech offerings that nonetheless engage the emotions. There are also, of course, examples of the opposite cases--masterly images combined with elegant, controlled storytelling, and films that are crude and sloppy and waste our time.

But even the worst of them don't waste much of our time, and the good ones make up for it. Of the 13 films in this year's Classic Festival of Animation, now playing at the Valley Art Theatre in Tempe, the delights outnumber the bummers by a solid margin. On balance, it's a rewarding couple of hours.

Here's a quick run-down on the pack:
Shock--This German entry by Zlatin Radev pits an animator, seen in pixelated live action, against the line figures he's just drawn. It's a familiar idea--the Looney Tunes classic Duck Amuck used it--but Radev executes it so smashingly that this is one of the better selections.

GYten Appetit--A cute, Vaughn Bode-esque cockroach defends his turf against a grotesque old man, seen in live action. This Bulgarian short looks good, but the gags don't really jell.

Lily and Jim--Childlike, simon-simple animation is used to funny, sweet and poignant effect in this dialogue-driven little sketch about two lonely singles straining to make small talk on a blind date. Painful, and pretty good.

FrYhling--A bit of modern expressionism from Germany--green forks grow out of a table like plants, and dance to Vivaldi. I didn't get it, but the Vivaldi sounded good.

Hand in Hand--A trio of tightrope dancers get into trouble when they fail to accept a fourth because of her different appearance. Swedish filmmaker Lasse Persson concocted this trite parable about bigotry.

Stage Fright--This elaborate clay-animation melodrama by Brit Steve Box is strongly reminiscent, in style, of Nick Park's Wallace & Gromit films, but it's darker, and less charming. Still, this tale of a washed-up vaudevillian "dog juggler," and how the loyalty of his dogs saves him from the machinations of a rotten rival actor, has a bizarre power.

Underwear Stories--These animated line drawings by San Diego animator Blair Thornley, which vaguely recall the cartoons of B. Kliban, were made as title sequences for a series of German TV documentaries about underwear. In context, they probably were effective, but they don't quite stand alone.

Museum--It's three minutes of pixelated boredom from Belgium, as an art museum security guard struggles with a rebellious picture on the wall.

Man's Best Friend--This U.S. entry by animator Ben Gluck tells about the trouble Adam's jealous pet dog caused when Eve showed up in the Garden. It's an open homage to the great Jay Ward's Fractured Fairy Tales--the narrator even manages to sound like Edward Everett Horton--and it's probably the funniest film in the collection.

T.R.A.N.S.I.T.--By far the most ambitious and visually striking film in the festival, this Brit entry works backward from the murder of a beautiful young jet-setter of the 1920s to the chance meeting which led to it, by tracing the tags on her suitcase. The various episodes, which range from Paris to Venice to Baden-Baden to Cairo, each have a different look. The titles at the end imply that it's a true story.

The Janitor--Line drawings illustrate this strange, funny conceit about the cosmic--but still likably blue-collar--Custodian of the Universe. Veteran character actor Geoffrey Lewis (Juliette's father) provides the voice.

Welcome--In this Russian adaptation of the Dr. Seuss masterpiece Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, the good-natured creature allows all the other inhabitants of the forest to ride in his antlers, and pretty soon they see his servitude as their due. In a Russian context, this all seems very political. It's also visually beautiful--the Seussian images are rendered with a diffuse, watercolorish delicacy.

Geri's Game--This computer-animated quickie from Pixar, the outfit that made Toy Story for Disney, won this year's Oscar for Best Animated Short, and it's easy to see why--it's rich-toned and lovely, and its single character is expressive without ever speaking a word. He's an old guy who plays against himself at chess in the park--and proves a wily opponent.

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead