The British Are Coming! The British Are Coming! Animation Fest Showcases The U.k."s Best

April 12, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'The British Animation Invasion'

Produced by Terry Thoren.

Released by Expanded Entertainment.

Unrated.

*** The British do certain things with insouciant charm: gain and lose empires, invent raincoats, write spy novels and animate. On the other hand, their theme parks really suck.

Thus "The British Animation Invasion," which today sails into the Charles for a week, is an absolute state-of-the-art collection of the very best in British animation in a variety of modes. It arrives from Expanded Entertainment, the image entrepreneurs who unleash the "Tournee of Animation" series about nine times a year.

As a strictly United Kingdom enterprise, "The British Animation Invasion" has one wonderful thing going for it that's worth two stars before the first frames flash on the screen: no morose Eastern European art-toons. You know, in which an ink spot has a meaningful personal relationship with smear of chlorophyl to the strains of Schadenfreude's "The Wiemarschmaltz Waltz: Noctern in B-Flat Major."

The Brits are entirely too practical for such nonsense, as one could expect from the people who invented bacon. They're much more interested in low arts, like selling, than high arts, like feeling bad about the meaninglessness of existence. Selling gives existence meaning; therefore, fully 60 percent of the short pieces in the film are commercials, contained in "Showreels," which I take it is Brit ad-game lingo for collections of best work meant to get other commissions.

Oh how jolly! Aardman animations, for example, are the pluperfect masters of claymation, that technique by which lumps of clay are made to come alive through stop-motion photography. The Aardman people -- chiefly David Sproxton and Peter Lord -- say they make commercials in order to make films, but by the weird physics of creativity, their crass work-for-hire is much more memorable than their so-called "serious" stuff.

A small 20-second ad for a beer called "Lurpak," syncopated to a parody version of the great old '60s masterpiece "Leader of the Pack" is much more vivid than the studio's vaunted "masterpiece," a six-minute video "Sledgehammer," which, though winning many awards, disappeared from my memory more quickly than a bad dream. And Aardman's Academy Award-nominated "Creature Comforts," in which a number of whimsically imagined zoo creatures complain about their lives in the argot of the British working class is a good idea extended 10 times longer than necessary.

Two absolutely perfect stories don't rely on products to get them by. The first is a script from the novelist Russell Hoban as visualized by David Anderson, called "Door." Wow! Hard to describe but impossible to forget. On a planet of doors floating in space, a working class Adam tells of the time he and his Eve opened the wrong door, plunged through and found themselves in an Eden of imagery, all of it manufactured by the most dazzling high-tech processes. It's a haunting yarn.

Far more traditional is the lovely "The Night Visitors," by Richard Ollive. In the visual vernacular of late 19th century children's illustration, this vivid dream of a piece plays with themes devised by James M. Barrie, involving a boy named Peter Pan and his capacity to fly through the night air.

Perhaps the most mind-blowing, show-stopping extravaganza is Barry Purves' "Next," a "puppet-toon" of amazing sophistication. Next," calls a stage manager at an audition in a sleazy London theater, and who should appear but William Shakespeare himself who then manages, as physiology recapitulates ontogeny, to recapitulate his oeuvre in a dizzying five-minute span, an astonishing rush of permutations and suggestions. It impresses us, but not the stage manager, who then calls, "Next. . ."

In an equally satirical vein, Candy Guard offers several acerbic pieces starring two working-class British women, who kvetch bitterly but hilariously on their lives and go out and have LTC always-deflating adventures. In one, they go to a party, are completely ignored, eat like pigs, and go home depressed. The feminist subtext gives the piece a true poignancy. In "What About Me" the same two squabble while drinking tea, making the melancholy discovery that each is most passionately interested in herself.

All in all, "The British Animation Invasion" is wonderfully entertaining, if a bit longish at 110 minutes.

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