ANIMATED-FILM FEST COMES UP SHORT

Viewers weary of the limited movements and mindlessness of TV cartoons usually look forward to the Annecy Festival for a rare taste of well-animated, artistically significant films. Unfortunately, many of the films at this year's festival (May 28-June 2) were enough to make Saturday morning kidvid look good.

The disappointing array of work has grave implications for the state of world animation.

In odd-numbered years since 1961, artists, writers and fans have gathered at this lakeside resort near the foot of Mt. Blanc for the world's oldest and most prestigious animated film festival. Many of the prize winners here have gone on to win the Oscar for animated short, including this year's "A Greek Tragedy."

Although most people limit their viewing to three or four hours a day, anyone with eyes--and a derriere--of steel could watch animated films from 9:30 a.m. until well after midnight.

American animator Tom Sito complained, "No matter what I decide to go to, I feel like I'm missing something more important some place else."

The audiences tend to be outspoken, cheering for the good films, and whistling and booing at the bad ones. They had a lot to whistle at this year. A certain amount of grousing about how the films aren't as good as they used to be is standard at any festival, but the consensus among the participants was that the quality of work here was appallingly low.

Annecy '85 included three Oscar winners ("Charade," "Anna and Bella," "A Greek Tragedy") and three more nominees ("Paradise," "The Big Snit," "Second Class Mail"). Annecy '87 offered only one truly outstanding film, a few good works and, frankly, quite a lot of trash.

The medium is not so much dying as committing suicide. Many films were self-indulgent examples of navel-gazing, created with no thought of telling the audience a story, in even the most rudimentary way. Images were carelessly tossed onto the screen with little regard for pacing, structure, timing or content.

Some of the worst films were done in computer animation. John Lasseter, the director of the Oscar-nominated "Luxo, Jr." (U.S.), expressed concern that the proliferation of computer technology is putting graphics capabilities into the hands of people who don't understand the basics of animation or film making.

Many of the computer films were meaningless demonstrations of technique rather than finished films. A series of painfully amateurish 2-D dimensional computer films by French students provoked jeers from the audience. But the lack of technical polish in many of the computer-animated--and hand-rendered--films was minor, compared to the failure of the artists to tell a story or develop a coherent aesthetic idea.

Even well-respected animators offered works below their usual standards: Jacques Drouin (whose Oscar-nominated pin-screen film "Mindscape" remains a staple in animation programs) and Czech puppet animator Bretislav Pojar spent more than five years working together on "Nightangel" (Canada/Czechoslovakia). Yet their film proved to be a pretty but empty exercise in technique, and provided one of the major disappointments here.

Many films displayed the facile cruelty and gratuitous ugliness that afflicts many recent live-action films. The title character in Danny Antonucci's "Lupo the Butcher" (Canada) chops off his finger with a cleaver, then falls apart in a shower of blood and curses. "An Inside Job" (Ireland) by Aidan Hickey depicts a mad dentist drilling the teeth of a helpless patient. "Such stuff as bad dreams are made on . . . ."

Unquestionably the best film in the festival was "l'Homme Qui Plantait des Arbres" ("The Man Who Planted Trees") by Frederic Back, who won the Oscar in 1982 for "Crac!" Drawn in colored pencil on frosted acetate, "l'Homme" tells the true story of a Provencal shepherd who transforms a wretched wasteland into a bountiful forest. Its shimmering beauty and tremulous humanity moved the audience to tears--even viewers who couldn't understand the French narration. This lovely film (which screens at 3:45 p.m. today at the American Film Institute in Hollywood) will undoubtedly be a strong contender for an Academy Award next year.

Other bright spots: In "Baeus" (Italy), Bruno Bozzetto ("Allegro Non Troppo") depicts a bizarre, star-crossed love affair of a suburban housewife and a little blue bug. "Babylon" (Great Britain) by Aardman Animation and "The Apple" (Czechoslovakia) by Lubomir Benes demonstrated the emotional range of puppet animation, from chilling to droll.

Commercial animator Bob Kurtz offered funny illustrations of George Carlin's outrageous humor in "Drawing on My Mind" (U.S.), and "Luxo, Jr." (U.S.) and Les Drew's "Every Dog's Guide to Complete Home Safety" remain crowd-pleasers.

To the audience's indignation, the festival split the Grand Prize between "The Man Who Planted Trees" and Boris Kanev's "A Crushed World" (Bulgaria), a clever but undistinguished film made with paper cut-outs. Even more questionable was the jury's decision to award a special prize to Joanna Quinn's "Girl's Night Out" (Great Britain), a sniggering endorsement of sexual humiliation. The prize for "Carnet d'Esquisses" ("Sketch Notebook," France), an excruciating computer film by Michael Gaumnitz provoked jeers from the crowd for the film maker and the jury.

If major festivals like this continue to honor technically inept and morally offensive works, they can contribute only to the further debasement of animation art. Rising costs, limited budgets, shortened deadlines, inadequate training programs and the demands of TV production have already taken their toll. It would be a bitter irony if an international forum created to recognize excellence in animation degenerated into a showcase for mediocrity--or worse.

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