The Animation Show

Reviewed by Rich Drees

     The end of the golden age of cinema due to the rise in the popularity of television brought about many changes in cinema, most notably to the field of animation. As distribution and presentation formats changed, the old style “night at the movies” disappeared. Animated shorts, as well as travelogues, newsreels and the like, vanished from screens across America. Cartoons, which previously were produced to appeal to both children and adults, soon became watered down after school and Saturday morning kiddie fare.

     Starting in the late 70s the Fantastic Animation Festival anthology film series began screening in arthouses and on college campuses around the country as a way to theatrically present new animated shorts. It was soon joined by the International Tournee of Animation and Spike & Mike’s Sick and Twisted and Classic Animation showcases. By the mid-90s though, the International Tournee had disappeared and Spike & Mike’s was playing on a smaller number of screens. The rise of Flash animation and high speed internet access had given new venues to budding animators, allowing them to more directly reach an audience.

     Now, animators Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt have brought animated shorts back to the silver screen with The Animation Show, currently on tour across the country. Their first compilation, in what they plan on being an annual release, is weighted heavy towards recent productions, with six out of the 11 pieces being recent Academy Award nominees. Even among this outstanding group collection, a few stand out.

     Nominated for an Academy Award in 2002 is the computer animated 50 Percent Grey. It tells the story of a deceased pilot who finds himself unable to cope with the rather unexpected conditions of the afterlife and features a twist ending right out of the Twilight Zone. Another outstanding computer animated piece is the fantasy Cathedral, a 2003 nominee for Best Animated Short.

     Done in the manner of their more famous Wallace And Gromit shorts, Aardman Animation’s Ident mixes humor and pathos to look at the facets, real or manufactured that we present to others throughout our daily routine. Das Rad (Rocks) is a German piece about a conversation between two rock creatures and which offers a unique perspective on time. Both were nominated in 2003 for the Oscar for Best Animated Short.

     In what is probably the de rigueur for any animation compilation, there's the obligatory short from Bill Plympton. Parking tells the story of a parking lot attendant and his struggle with a single, determined blade of grass that pokes up through the macadam.

     A real treat for animation buffs is the inclusion of a restored excerpt for Ward Kimball’s Mars And Beyond. The piece was originally ordered by Walt Disney as part of a series of “science-factual” cartoons he wanted to air on the Disneyland television series in 1957. The segment shows a fantastic mix of science fact and fantastic speculation about conditions on Earth’s neighboring planet. Hopefully, this is an indicator that the rest of the series is being readied for an eventual DVD release.

     There is one other short in the program that is not listed in the program and meant to be a surprise for audiences, so I will not divulge it here. Suffice it to say though that I think while it is a short many animation fans have probably already seen, it’s still a treat to see on the big screen.

     Producers Judge and Hertzfeldt have included some of their own work as well. Judge’s entry is a collection of some of his early pencil tests, showing the creator of Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill in his formative stages. These are mostly just odd little vignettes, but the segment does contain the first of his Office Space shorts, which would go on to be aired on Saturday Night Live. (It would have been nice to see the first Beavis and Butthead short, Frog Baseball, as well but I suspect that its rights are probably tied up by M-TV.) For those who haven’t seem them before, Hertzfeldt presents two shorts; Billy’s Balloon and his Academy Award nominated Rejected, an epic bit of insanity that builds to a metaphysical crescendo as the animator undergoes a mental breakdown. Hertzfeldt also supplies the opening, closing and midpoint segments for the show.

     The only disappointment in the collection is the Japanese film Atama Yama (Mt. Head). While the design of the short is nice, the subtitling often disappears into the light background, making reading impossible.