Cartoon Noir presents six animated short subjects, providing a dark-toned alternative for those sick already of Pokmon and Toy Story 2. Though variable in quality, the international omnibus package offers several provocative moments for adult audiences. The best episode of the lot is Piotr Dumala's Gentle Spirit (Lagodna), from 1987, a haunting and beautifully crafted version of Dostoyevsky's novella about a young woman who marries an ogre. Using a brown and ochre color scheme, Dumala's paint-on-plaster technique perfectly captures the suffocating atmosphere, telling the tragic tale with as much somber force as Robert Bresson's celebrated modern screen version, Une Femme Douce (1969). It is arguable whether Gentle Spirit fits the definition of cartoon noir, however, since it lacks even a trace of bitter irony. But Julie Zammarchi's Ape, from 1992, offers sarcasm to spare in its depiction of a married couple's nightly dinner ritual eating a whole, cooked monkey! Using simple, mostly black-and-white hand drawings and a bluesy score by Caleb Sampson, Zammarchi makes a memorable statement about the psychic violence of bourgeois relationships.

On a grander scale, Jiri Barta's Club of the Discarded, from 1989, represents the film's most ambitious piece (at 25 minutes). Barta cleverly creates a world where a family of discarded mannequins ritually come to life in an abandoned warehouse, only to be threatened one day by a group of new, modern-looking mannequins. Using stop-motion puppet animation, Barta develops a surreal sense of place similar to the work of Czech compatriot Jan Svankmajer and comments on the Old and New World values of a Soviet-bloc society in flux.

Paul Vester's Abductees, from 1995, attempts lighter satire in a collage of material based on the experiences of five New Yorkers who believe they have been abducted by aliens. The blend of cel animation and processed video makes an interesting experiment, but the brightly colored drawings diminish the eerie impact of the five stories. It also seems Vester is laughing smugly and gratuitously at his subjects.

The short opening piece, Pedro Serrazina's The Story of the Cat and the Moon, also from 1995, evokes noir both in its simple black-and-white drawings and its voice-over narrative about a cat that falls in love with the moon. But the coda a happy one turns the charming idea into a Hallmark greeting card. The finale, Suzan Pitt's Joy Street, from 1996, also suffers from good cheer, as a suicidal woman is rescued from despair by a Mickey Mouse figure in her ashtray. The stark early images give way to an animation style so like Disney (the mouse dances to Curtis Fowlkes 'What a Wonderful World'), one wonders when the parody will kick in. Will the woman kill the monkey instead of herself? No. Joy Street lives up to its title, but sweetness without bitterness isn't noir, and in this particular instance, the results are execrable and interminable (at 24 minutes). With plenty of Quay Brothers shorts more appropriate for this compilation, it's a shame to end the film on this unrelentingly upbeat note. Cartoon Noir perhaps bends the definition of film noir, but at least it compensates for three flawed pieces with three worthy gems.

--Eric Monder