The annual "Festival of Animation" from Spike and Mike's Mellow Manor Productions remains one of two or three major showcases for the medium in the United States: The 1992 "Festival" (at Edwards South Coast Plaza Village) is a mixed bag of delightful and less-than-wonderful shorts that proves much of the world's most innovative animation is currently being done in England.
Leading off the British contingent is David Greaves's "Manipulation," which won the Oscar for animated short earlier this year. A clever homage to Chuck Jones' "Duck Amuck" and the Fleischers' "Out of the Inkwell" series, "Manipulation" combines drawings, cutouts and puppets. An animator draws an appealing little character, then proceeds to squash, stretch and otherwise torment the hapless fellow. Because the audience never learns why the animator is abusing his creation, the torment seems rather arbitrary, and the character's increasingly desperate attempts to escape lose much of their comic impact.
Ken Lidster combines cel and puppet animation with more satisfying results in "Balloon" (England), in which a thoughtless little girl has to rescue her favorite red toy from a delightfully bizarre balloon-eating monster that looks like a postmodern version of a Blue Meanie. The transitions between the two- and three-dimensional media are virtually seamless, and the resulting film is technically impressive, if a little cool emotionally.
The London-based Aardman Animations Studio produces some of the finest and funniest animated clay films in the world, as Peter Lord demonstrates in "Adam," a satirical look at the first man on Earth. Nick Park, another Aardman director, conjures up a hilarious menagerie of British zoo animals in "Creature Comforts at Home," a series of commercials based on his Oscar-winning clay film "Creature Comforts."
Both shorts get laughs from wonderfully timed sight gags that could only work in animation. Oliver Harrison amuses the audience by cleverly juxtaposing Art Deco-type faces with a scratchy old recording of an Italian love song in the neatly understated "Amore Baciami" (England).
Three North American films represent widely disparate media and approaches to animation. Christopher Hinton simultaneously spoofs and evokes one of the most galling torments of the Northern woods in his Oscar-nominated "Blackfly" (Canada), a very funny short done in crayon on paper. In the unusually sensual computer film, "Visions From the Amazon" (U.S.), Nancy Koto contrasts the sinuous motions of curves that suggest tropical vines with the stiffer walks of masked stick figures that represent the natives of the rain forest.
Joan Gratz uses streaks of brightly colored clay on underlit plexiglass to survey 20th-Century figurative painting in "Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase" (U.S.). Although the re-creations of the famous paintings are visually striking, watching one image metamorphose into another quickly cloys, and the film seems much longer than its six minutes. Gratz is clearly an exceptional artist in need a project more worthy of her talents.
Much of the rest of the program consists of student works of varying quality. It's interesting to see how the drawn movements of a drunken table lamp in John Lasseter's "Lady With the Lamp" (U.S.) anticipate the antics of the computer generated father-son desk lamps in his Oscar-nominated "Luxo, Jr." "Next Door," by Pete Docter, (U.S.) adds an imaginative graphic twist to a gentle story. But both films are really just student exercises. The crude drawing and animation in Teresa Lang's "License to Kill" (Canada) do little to leaven the heavy-handed ecological preaching. Mike Wellins tries much too hard to be clever in the computer-animated "Big Fat World of Science" (U.S.) and succeeds in being merely sophomoric and effortful.
The animation festival is running in tandem with the previously reviewed (and considerably less entertaining) "Extra Sick and Twisted" collection.
* "The 1992 Festival of Animation" screens through July 2 at Edwards South Coast Village Cinema, 1561 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana. (714) 540-0594.