LIONS AND GRASSHOPPERS AND NOSES, OH, MY! : The Captivating Range of Costa Mesa’s Festival of Animation

<i> Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

In Nick Park’s “Creature Comforts,” one of the high lights of the 1991 Festival of Animation now in Costa Mesa, claymation zoo animals are asked how they feel about captivity. With a microphone pushing at their whiskers, they respond in ticklishly human ways.

The playful anthropomorphizing is a kick, as a lion with a South American accent talks about needing “more space” and a turtle slowly explains that “I usually try to escape into books and things.” It’s sad, though, when the gorilla mournfully points out that “sometimes you get bored and fed up . . . you feel like an object in a box.”

This short film by Park, the acclaimed British claymation expert known for his work on Peter Gabriel’s videos, is funny, incisive and even touching. It’s also up for an Academy Award this year in the animation category, along with his “Grand Day Out” and Bruno Bozzetto and Ricardo Deuti’s “Grasshopper.” All three are in the festival, which screens nightly at the Edwards Mesa Cinema through March 21.

“Grand Day Out” may be Park’s most ambitious project to date. The 23-minute film, which tells of a trip to the moon, took him eight years to complete. Shane Peterson, the festival’s producer, said it’s the favorite to win the Oscar.

The long shot may be “Grasshopper,” an eight-minute cartoon from Italy that takes us through history and the dubious rise of civilization. Bozzetto and Deuti’s version of religion and nations is decidedly black; violence is the handmaiden of progress throughout this lively and satiric short.


While those three are the centerpiece, the festival, now in its 14th year, offers 15 other animated films from around the world that are interesting for their variety, both in technical style and point of view. Peterson and the other organizers have laid out a two-hour-long smorgasbord for cartoon fans.

The Eastern European contributions are easily the most provocative and avant-garde. The four-minute “Dimensions of Dialogue” by Czechoslovakia’s Jan Svankmajer features the striking manipulation of everyday objects (vegetables, fruit, utensils, paper, you name it), which change into human shapes.

What seems like an exercise in visual sport becomes more pertinent by the end. The objects begin to multiply in exact copies; Svankmajer seems to be commenting on the threat of systems that don’t allow for diversification and individuality.

In a more traditional vein is “Simon,” by Robert Lence of the United States. His little tale about a boy who is shunned because he doesn’t have a nose is sweetly moralizing and a great offering for children (though the festival as a whole may be too sophisticated for younger tastes). Everything turns out in the end as Simon becomes a hero when he is able to lead a skunk from the classroom.

Also from the United States is Karl Sims’ gorgeous (but antiseptic) computer-generated cartoon “Panspermia/Particle Dreams” and David Bishop’s “Mother Goose,” a wry short pointing out the violence in children’s nursery rhymes.

The range in technique presents interesting contrasts. “The Western,” a two-minute cartoon with a twister ending, is almost painterly in its use of color and texture, while “Fatty Issues” by Candy Guard of Great Britain is crudely minimalist line drawings brought to life.

To give some perspective on the history of animation, the festival begins with “Betty Boop in Snow White,” Max Fleischer’s classic 10-minute cartoon. Like most of Fleischer’s Boop creations from the 1930s, it’s a riot of surreal imagery and fanciful humor.

What: The Festival of Animation.

When: Nightly at 7 and 9:30 p.m. (with 4 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday) through March 21.

Where: Edwards Mesa Cinema, 1884 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa.

Whereabouts: Take the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway to Newport Boulevard. The theater is at the corner of Newport and 19th Street.

Wherewithal: $4 (matinees), $5.50 and $6.50.

Where to call: (714) 673-3512 and (213) 498-9856.