Film Review: The 19th Annual Animation Show of Shows

A collection of 16 animated short films contains a few standout entries, one true dud, and the rest a batch of creative if flawed efforts.
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Though they come from different filmmakers from different countries, and two are from different eras, the shorts that comprise The 19th Annual Animation Show of Shows have been selected with care. Most of them are of high quality and display the virtues of minimalist techniques—no Pixar pastiches here. The question remains: Will such a movie attract viewers hooked on single narratives with live action?

From the very beginning, Ron Diamond, the founder and curator of the Animation Show of Shows, emphasizeshis preference for dark themes told in stark, simple terms: In “Can You Do It” (2016), French-born Quentin Baillieux depicts a horse race through the streets of Los Angeles as an allegory about class disparity. The naively humanistic ending weakens the work and the Charles X musical score never quite matches the mood, but the 3D design homage to Antonio Prohias is striking.

The more abstract “Tiny Big” (2017), from Belgian artist Lia Bertels, doesn’t try as hard to posit a definitive statement and thus succeeds better. It uses an atmospheric soundtrack and straightforward 2D line drawings—mostly in black-and-white, though with some bits of color—to illustrate the intrusion of human violence on a peaceful, everyday world.

“Next Door” by American Pete Docter was actually completed in 1990 but has been included in this new release and provides welcome comic relief. Early in his career, the Oscar-winning animation director (for Up in 2010 and Inside Out in 2016) made this infectious, Old School-style short about a couch potato’s TV viewing disrupted by an overly energetic little girl neighbor.

By contrast, from the U.K., “The Alan Dimension” (2016) uses the most sophisticated of techniques, from 2D to stop-motion to CG animation, to explore a domestic melodrama, part “kitchen-sink realism,” part sci-fi. Though director Jac Clinch’s ambitions outweigh his execution, and the narrative sympathy is clearly centered on the protagonist-husband, “The Alan Dimension” features a memorable series of images.

“Beautiful Like Elsewhere” (2017) shares with “Tiny Big” a love for abstraction, is also directed by a woman (Canada’s Elise Simard), and happens to be one of the best of the lot. In fact, it is difficult to describe in words the beauty of the compositions and the sound design that guide our journey through Simard’s afterlife—or at least some kind of phantasmagoric netherworld.

Another highlight is “Hangman,” though it is more than 50 years old: The 1964 American work by Paul Julian and Les Goldman has been restored and is well worth rediscovering. The truly frightening title figure kills its townspeople one by one, without anyone objecting as long as it someone else is being killed. Though we know where this story will lead and the anti-fascist theme has been done in other formats, “Hangman” is specifically based on a poem by Maurice Ogden and this chilling visualization incorporates the kind of expressionism that one finds in some of the Golden Age studio animation of which Julian and Goldman were part. The only drawback: a superfluous and overemphatic recitation of the poem by actor Herschel Bernardi.

Swiss director Georges Schwizgebel’s “The Battle of San Romano” finds its inspiration in the 15th-century fine artwork by Paolo Uccello that shares its name. Like last year’s feature about Van Gogh, Loving Vincent, this short “brings to life” a classical painting, in this case one about the horrors of war; however, it remains arguable whether the technique (and apparent trend) of bestowing motion to a still image inherently improves the original work, however slavish the matching of the imagery.

“Gokurosama” (2016) comes from France and a team of animators: Clémentine Frère, Aurore Gal, Yukiko Meignien, Anna Mertz, Robin Migliorelli and Romain Salvini. The goofy, free-form story that takes place in a Japanese mall doesn’t need to make sense in order to amuse—though the men in teddy bear suits is an inadvertent steal from the lousy feature film version of The Avengers (1998). The technique is reminiscent of the Puppetoons and Lou Bunin’s puppets, updated by 3D animation but minus the handcrafted charm.

That aforementioned dud, “Dear Basketball” (2017), really has no place in this compendium. Actually, the skill behind the film is impressive—and that is part of the problem. Written, produced and narrated by Kobe Bryant, “Dear Basketball” charts the growth of Bryant from impressionable child to star player (nearing the end of his career). With the help of Disney animator Glen Keane, Hollywood composer John Williams and the NBA (credited in the acknowledgments), Bryant continues his long-range campaign to restore his reputation following his foul off the court: a 2003 rape charge by a teenage hotel employee. Since the matter was settled out of court, Bryant cannot be considered better or worse than any of the men being accused of sexual harassment during the current #MeToo movement. So why should an artistic indie feature be assisting this cynical rehabilitation effort and what do the other filmmakers think of its inclusion?

“Island” (2017), from Germany, returns the Animation Show of Shows to a whimsical if cautionary mood. Max Mörtl and Robert Löbel combine forces to dramatize the formation of an island, the evolution of its organisms, and the ultimate fate of the land mass. David Kamp’s sound design stands out, while the animation itself favorably echoes Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit.

Another French offering, “Unsatisfying” (2016), from Parallel Studios, is quite the opposite of its title: This perceptive, funny short links a series of vignettes of quotidian, mostly universal frustrations, from the yolk of an egg that breaks during frying to a computer download that takes a seeming eternity. Samuel Barber’s haunting “Adagio for Strings” makes the perfect counterpoint to emphasize the irony of the all-too-common practice, “sweating the small stuff.”

Topping nearly everything else is “The Burden” (2017), from Sweden, which had its own recent run at New York’s Film Forum (accompanying the feature documentary Bugs). This surrealist treasure from Niki Lindroth von Bahr revises a variety of genres at once, mainly the Hollywood musical, only here we have human-size singing fish in a hotel and tap-dancing mice in a fast-food restaurant. Von Bahr makes it all work, from her handmade models to the superb cinematography, with a subtle critique of social anomie emerging out of the weirdness—like the best of David Lynch.

Almost as creative in its own way, “Les Abeilles domestiques” (aka “Domestic Bees,” 2017), from Canada, tells several stories simultaneously—all taking place under the roof of an apartment complex. Alexanne Desrosiers borrows the multiplicity technique from Jacques Tati (and a bit from Rear Window), allowing her audience to choose what story to follow but also demanding from them repeat viewing. Though frustrating, “Les Abeilles domestiques” engages as it overwhelms.

“Our Wonderful Nature—The Common Chameleon” (2016), from Germany, is a disturbing and witty parody of nature documentaries, starring a hungry lizard that gets its “just desserts.” The deadpan tone recalls Peter Greenaway’s early shorts and the animation style is as “realistic” in a live-action sense as any of the other entries in this feature.

Visually and musically, “Casino” (2016), again from Canada, obviously pays tribute to Canada’s own Norman McLaren. Steven Woloshen barely updates or deviates from McLaren’s signature style (wiggly abstract shapes dancing to jazz themes) and apparently shot the film without the aid of state-of-the-art equipment. But good as it is, “Casino” begs the question: Why bother?

Finally, “Everything” (2017), from the U.S., turns Alan Watts’ theories into oddball visual poetry. Irish-born David OReilly accompanies Watts’ lecture on the universe with such images as bears somersaulting through a forest. Is it distracting or entertaining? That’s your call.

For that matter, The 19th Annual Animation Show of Shows is a tough call for those seeking consistency. But there are certainly enough enticing shorts within the package to make the weaker portions acceptable to overlook.

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