The 19th annual "Animation Show of Shows" brings an eclectic array of personal films from around the world to American audiences accustomed to equating animation with high-end CG features. This year's collection includes 16 shorts from eight countries that emphasize animation's potential as a vehicle for personal artistic expression, a tradition dating back to the pioneering work of Winsor McCay in the early 20th century.
An adaptation of Laker superstar Kobe Bryant's farewell poem to the sport he loved, "Dear Basketball" (USA) stands out as the most beautifully animated film in the show. Disney veteran Glen Keane's vigorous pencil drawings turn Bryant's body into a moving sculpture, soaring through the air toward the basket. Touching scenes that juxtapose an 8-year-old Bryant and the adult athlete performing the same moves show that the child truly was the father of this man. "Dear Basketball" won the World Animation Celebration in September and is a likely nominee for the Oscar for animated short.
"Next Door" (USA), which Pixar director Pete Docter made as a student at CalArts in 1990, shows the future Oscar winner exploring the use of simple graphic shapes to define characters, an idea he developed further in his features. The cranky neighbor in "Next Door" is essentially a square, as are Carl, the embittered widower in "Up," and Anger in "Inside Out."
Baby boomers may remember seeing "Hangman" (USA) in junior high social studies classes. Made by Les Goldman and Paul Julian in 1964, "Hangman" is an adaptation of the 1951 poem by Maurice Ogden, which has been called a response to both the Holocaust and McCarthyism. There's little animation in the film, just camera movements over unsettling paintings of crumbling architecture, eroded landscapes and hanged bodies. "Show of Shows" producer/curator Ron Diamond recently had the film restored, and its message about the need to stand against injustices perpetrated against others has an added resonance in today's divided America.
Two short comic CG films from France center on frustration. An older woman preparing bento box lunches in a Japanese mall suffers a back spasm, precipitating a string of improbable yet logical complications in the clever "Gokurosama." Artists at the Parallel Studio capture the minor vexations of everyday life in "Unsatisfying": vending machines that won't release their wares, a yolk that breaks while the egg is frying, toast that lands jelly side down. The filmmakers understand just how long to keep the gag going before it wears out its welcome.
In "The Battle of San Romano," Swiss animator Georges Schwizgebel plays a sort of fugue on Paolo Uccello's 15th century painting, moving the shapes and colors of men and animals in a counterclockwise spiral around the canvas. Steven Woloshen's brightly colored "Casino" (Canada) pays homage to a more recent artist: Norman McLaren, who invented this technique of "camera-less animation." The simple images were drawn directly onto 35 mm film stock.
"My Burden" (Sweden) by Niki Lindroth von Bahr, which won the grand prize at the Annecy International Film Festival, boasts some impressive stop-motion animation, including two tap dancing mice who clean a fast food joint and a chorus of cats who work as telephone operators. But the narrative feels underdeveloped and the film is more interesting as a technical exercise. Jac Clinch's "The Alan Dimension" (UK) similarly mixes imaginative animation with a weak story.
For viewers weary of the overly detailed look of many recent American CG features, the "Show of Shows" offers a welcome reminder that an animated film can be as intimate and personal as a signature.
‘Animation Show of Shows’
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: AMC Universal CityWalk; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Frida Cinema, Santa Ana