Drawn to cartoons

October 17, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The promoters of the flip, zesty, 94-minute anthology known only as The Animation Show promise, in their ads, "additional films and surprises." That might be a sure-fire marketing tool in a town overflowing with cartoon geeks, but in most cities they'd be better off letting their sleekest, blackest cat out of the bag. Tim Burton's oft-celebrated, rarely seen 1982 short Vincent is this show's chief "surprise." Though it runs a mere six minutes, it's enough to restore faith in Burton's talents after his herky-jerky Planet of the Apes.

This piece of genuine pop poetry is a perfect little film. Rendered in Dr. Seuss-like verse and Charles Addams-like black-and-white compositions, it's a portrait (really, a self-portrait) of a pallid, lank-haired suburban lad who is obsessed with Vincent Price's horror films. The boy is called Vincent, too. He's funneled all his energy and creativity into cooking up a Gothic fantasy world - one so inventive and engaging to the movie's audience (if not his mother) that you'd hate to see him give it up to breathe fresh air and play ball.

A combination of stop-motion puppets and drawn images helps Burton create an intricate alternate universe within the cartoon's "reality." And the darkly whimsical rhymes work beautifully - partly because Vincent Price himself reads the narration, splendidly.

Mordant, comical identity crises drive several other notable entries, including the virtuoso Ident, a tale of clay figures who don different clay masks for every daily crisis, from Richard Goleszowski of Aardman Animations (the studio behind Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run). A husband's fear of parenthood gets the sci-fi/slapstick treatment in Cordell Barker's Strange Invaders, about an alien of peanut proportions. And Koji Yamamura's Mt. Head details the disintegration of a miserly man after a cherry tree sprouts up from his scalp.

The collection rarely lags. Producers Mike Judge (King of the Hill) and Don Hertzfeldt sprinkle in a variety of cartoons with the length and punch of blackout jokes. The best of these is Ruairi Robinson's 50 Percent Grey, a vision of the afterlife based on the theory that things can always get worse.

Hertzfeldt himself sets the tone with bridging material featuring creatures who are basically high-pitched doodles; at one point they uproariously confront what to them is the dreaded third dimension. Hertzfeldt's show-stopping short Rejected views the downfall of a cartoonist in a series of canceled promotional animations for broadcast and corporate clients. One for "The Family Learning Channel" highlights an insect-sized tyke holding a huge utensil in front of a minuscule cereal bowl. He moans "My spoon is too big"; then a fruit enters the frame and with stunning obviousness declares, "I am a banana." (Judge contributes early pencil tests and experiments, including the animated precursor to Office Space, his brilliant live-action outcry against cubicle life.)

Too often "pure" spectacles like Tomek Baginski's The Cathedral (a low point) are no more than sensory palate-cleansers. But on its own surreal terms Georges Schwizgebel's La Course A L'Abime, set to Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust, out-fantasias Fantasia.

And an excerpt from Ward Kimball's Mars and Beyond, produced for the old Disneyland TV series, uses a delirious blend of Disney and Dali to interpret how life could emerge on the Red Planet. In a way, Kimball's phantasmagoria links up with the witty piece from Germany, Das Rad, about rock creatures managing to survive the Ice Age - and the Human Age, too - simply by staying in place as history whirls around them. Like The Animation Show as a whole, these two extravagant shorts leave you feeling happily, healthily stoned.

The Animation Show opens today exclusively at the Charles.

Animation Show

Compiled by Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt

Time 94 minutes

Sun Score ****

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