MTV // 2007 // 181 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // February 5th, 2007
"Damn the illusion of movement! Damn the illusion of movement to Hell!" -- Fuzzy Creature, "Welcome to the Show"
Film festivals come in several flavors. There are the spectacles: swag-filled and paparazzi-infested zocalos like Cannes or Sundance. There are the artsy fests, where obscure films shot in black and white on camcorders chronicle the ennui of lesbian pizza delivery drivers for audiences of four or less. Then there are the animation tours. Every few years, somebody collects a few pretentious experimental shorts, some cartoon fart jokes, and maybe a cute CG piece or two, and throws them up on screens in college towns. A few careers were made this way. Mike Judge parlayed a crudely drawn bit about teenage morons hitting a frog with a baseball bat into a marketing juggernaut (Beavis and Butthead) and a steady and sly sitcom gig (King of the Hill). Mike Hertzfeldt stayed along the fringe, gaining critical accolades and a few festival laurels with hilariously cynical examinations of life on the edge of absurd collapse like "Lily and Jim" and "Rejected."
So, to return the favor, Judge and Hertzfeldt (brought together by festival favorite Bill Plympton) put together their own animation festival. Here are the first two years of The Animation Show on DVD.
Actually, the discs, covering the 2004 and 2005 shows, are slightly different from the touring programs. A few shorts were dropped, and a few were added to compensate. For example, the touring version of the 2004 show also included, among other pieces, an Aardman Animation short, segments from the "Mars and Beyond" episode of the Disneyland television show (which you can catch on the Walt Disney Treasures Tomorrowland set), and Hertzfeldt's "Rejected."
Any short film festival is going to have a few strong pieces and a few duds. Because there are so many pieces spread out over these two discs, I will note the highlights and skim through the lesser bits.
Volume 1: The 2004 Tour
* "Welcome to the Show"
Knowing that a large segment of the Animation Show audience bought tickets in the hopes of seeing Hertzfeldt's brilliantly mordant "Rejected," Hertzfeldt delivers three short segments -- the welcome, an "Intermission in the Third Dimension," and a closer -- that hearken back to gags from the earlier cartoon.
* "Mt. Head (Atama Yama)"
Koji Yamamura layers delicately-colored pencil work with textured digital effects to create an organic world. The surreal, shaggy-dog story itself is a popular children's tale about a man with a cherry tree growing out of his head, performed in traditional Japanese style with a shamisen.
You can't have an animation fest without Bill Plympton, the shining star of the indie animation scene. His favorite theme is man's battle against chaos: here a parking lot attendant fights off a blade of grass cracking its way through his pavement. It is an amusing trifle, light on story.
* "Moving Illustrations of Machines"
If the Brothers Quay remade "Ballet Machanique," it would probably come out much like this moody abstraction by Jeremy Solterbeck. The hypnotic parade of alien machinery runs a little bit long, but it is a strong contrast to the comedic shorts that bookend it. For some reason, this short is not listed on the packaging, nor is there a page devoted to the artist in the program guide.
* "Billy's Balloon"
Childhood is turned on its head in Don Hertzfeldt's savage revision of "The Red Balloon." Hertzfeldt's comic timing makes it all viciously funny.
* "Early Pencil Tests and Other Experiments"
Mike Judge provides some leftovers -- and the legendary Milton cartoon that later evolved into Office Space.
You can't have an animation festival without an entry from the National Film Board of Canada, one of the great patrons of the cartoon world. This time, it is a stop-motion riff on Madame Butterfly, with naked puppets making love. Eat your heart out, Team America! It all unravels inventively by the end.
* "The Rocks"
A stunning stop-motion tale of living rocks slowly biding their time while the world evolves around them, this German short is comparable to Aardman's work in cleverness and technical proficiency.
There is also some filler in the program. None of it is bad, just not likely to draw you in for a second viewing. Clay animation is represented by a collection of works by Adam Elliot (a droll trilogy about a dysfunctional family) and Corky Quakenbush (four "Ricardo" shorts, starring a rambunctious four-year-old). "Fifty Percent Grey" and "The Cathedral" are beautifully animated but personality-free CG fantasies that look like the best cut-scenes from the best computer game you've never played. We get a Flash-animated music video ("Bathtime in Clerkenwell") and the requisite impressionistic piece ("La Course a L'abime").
Most of the shorts are presented in full frame, with a few exceptions (like "Fifty Percent Grey") in widescreen. Print quality varies: a few pieces have noticeable scratches or dirt on them. This is not surprising, considering the homebrew production values on many independent cartoons.
There is a generous assortment of special features on Volume 1. Several of the shorts come with production art galleries or storyboards, including Hertzfeldt's segments. Hertzfeldt also offers a short commentary track about how he does his special effects without digital help. Bill Plympton and Corky Quakenbush offer affable commentary on their works. Quakenbush includes his first, experimental Ricardo short. We get some behind the scenes footage of the motion capture session and some animation tests for "The Cathedral." Mike Judge throws in a deleted pencil scene starring Beavis and Butthead's favorite neighbor, Tom Anderson.
Volume 2: The 2005 Tour
The second volume is less fragmented: there are fewer series shorts (like Quakenbush's "Ricardo" or Hertzfeldt's interstitials), and the individual pieces are more fully realized. There are still a few forgettable pieces (CG one-off jokes like "Rockfish" and "Fallen Art," romantic cuteness like "Hello," and the stop-motion "Fireworks" and "Magda"), but the program is clearly finding its voice in the second year.
* "Guard Dog"
Bill Plympton starts things off with this tale of a paranoid canine who imagines everyone and everything is a threat to his beloved master. The animation is not as fluid as with some Plympton works, but his use of shading and color shows why he is the master.
* "The F.E.D.S."
Interviews with those sample slingers you meet at the supermarket are transformed into a rotoscoped piece (live action overlaid with animation) colored as a pop art fantasy.
* "Pan With Us"
There are echoes of Stan Brakhage in this poetic homage to the Greek god and how nature sneaks into urban landscapes. This stop motion short is intriguing because artist David Russo literally shows his hands manipulating the objects in the shots, making the artifice seem organic.
* "Ward 13"
Most animated shorts fall into two categories: goofy joke or pretentious art piece. Either way, short cartoons are often about the punchline. While that can be said of much of The Animation Show, some pieces play against type and take advantage of every moment of screen time they get. Peter Cornwell's clay animated "Ward 13" is fun because it is a horror film with touches of dry humor. High production values (including a marvelously edited fight sequence and a 90 piece orchestra) help too. Sam Raimi is apparently a fan -- and "Ward 13" does have the tone of one of his movies.
* "When the Day Breaks"
The abrupt tragedies and small joys of daily life are played out through delicate pastel coloring rotoscoped over live footage. Another National Film Board production, this film is distinguished by its skillful use of closeups.
* "The Meaning of Life"
You would think a title like this would lead into a pretentious, self-absorbed cartoon. But this is festival boss Don Hertzfeldt, who once again shows his uncanny ability to hit profound notes warmly wrapped in inspired absurdity. He is funny and frightening at once, and nobody working today makes each new cartoon pay off with such original wit and experimental verve as he does. His ability to give stick figures such a range of emotion with offhand gestures makes him heir to George Herriman and Charles Schulz. "The Meaning of Life" is not as balls-out funny (nor as terrifying in its climax) as "Rejected," but its humor is a necessary bulwark against its sense of existential despair.
I wish the special features included something -- anything -- from Hertzfeldt about the making of "The Meaning of Life." Instead, we get lots of behind the scenes stuff about the shorts on the disc I really care least about. "Magda" creator Chel White offers an art gallery and a snappy "Frank Film"-style collage piece about the writing process. I liked it better than his festival entry. The creators of "Fallen Art" offer some behind-the-scenes production footage. "Fireworks" artist PES delivers another very brief stop motion piece made with toys and found junk, plus a featurette on its creation. Jennifer Drummond and Bob Sabiston (who both worked on Richard Linklater's Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly) show how they produced "The F.E.D.S."
The most interesting special feature is an all-too-short overview of the history of the animated short film. Yeah, a century from Gertie the Dinosaur to The Animation Show squeezed into 14 minutes. Judge, Hertzfeldt, and cartoon historians like Jerry Beck get sound bites, some public domain clips are worked in (no Disney, of course, but there's Betty Boop). We learn nothing about technique (for instance, how is UPA different than Disney in style and influence?), but the focus seems to be on the history of the animation film festival in the last half century. It is pretty thin though. Why talk about ASIFA (the first international animation organization) without mentioning Canada's National Film Board or Norman McLaren? How did Judge and Hertzfeldt choose particular films for their program?
The good pieces outweigh the weak ones. That's always the sign of a solid film festival. "Ward 13" is a particular treat, but nifty stuff from Bill Plympton and the National Film Board are worth watching too. Fans of Office Space have been begging for years to see the original Milton shorts. You also get a nice, juicy taste of Don Hertzfeldt's art. He upstages everyone in the program, although I doubt he means to do that. The Animation Show is reasonably priced and should offer fans of cartoons of all sorts of exactly what film festivals are really all about: the thrill of discovering the next big thing.
Rejected! No, just kidding. You're free to go.
Review content copyright © 2007 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 181 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "100 Years of Animated Shorts" Featurette
* Commentary Tracks by Don Hertzfeldt, Bill Plympton, and Corky Quakenbush
* Bonus Shorts
* Production Footage
* Art Galleries
* Official Site
* IMDb: Mike Judge
* IMDb: Don Hertzfeldt