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SICAF 2005 Short Films: The Funny and the Foreboding, the Serious and the Solemn

Toon Zone takes a look at some of the professional short films in competition at this year’s

Seventeen
2004 Hisko Hulsing, The Netherlands

Hisko Hulsing from the Netherlands directs this surreal depiction of a young man’s nightmare in a working-class Dutch town. The man, who has long hair he’s given to twirling, doesn’t fit in well with his gruff, dirty comrades at the construction company. As the film opens, the man catches a glimpse of a naked woman through her window across from the roof he’s working on. She notices him and instantly he feels a connection to her. Later that night, at the carnival, he tries to get up the nerve to buy her a drink, but when a few of his coworkers proposition her (she’s a prostitute) he instead drinks all the beer himself, eventually toppling him. When he awakens the fair is dark. He sees a man having sex with the woman and attacks them. They run him out of town, and into a half-reality where people twist and transform into perverted versions of the woman. As the film ends, we see the hero’s transformation into the very thing he despises.

Seventeen is stunningly effective in creating its chosen atmosphere. The startling twists in the scenery and characters keep the audience off balance, and the dream segments are genuinely frightening. The film is traditionally animated in a dark, grainy style that complements the material nicely. And empty fairgrounds are always extremely creepy. It’s a law of the universe.

The Flower and the Fan
2005 Bill Plympton, United States

The SICAF program describes The Flower and the Fan as “a very atypical Plympton cartoon,” and it seems so to me, even though I haven’t seen as much Plympton as some. The gentle story, told through voice-over narration and simple, black and white animation, concerns a ceiling fan in an old woman’s house that falls in love with a potted flower, eventually sacrificing itself to save her life. The only bursts of color in the film are the flower’s efforts to bloom into pleasing shapes for her ceiling fan. It’s a truly sweet little film.

Ivan the Fool
2005 Mikhail Aldashin, Oleg Uzhinov, Russia

This film was the surprise hit of the screening. An episode in a continuing series of animated Russian folktales, “Ivan” tells the story of the titular, eternally naive peasant who has trained his goat to dance. One day Ivan’s two brothers demand Ivan sell the goat, and Ivan sets off for the city. But when Ivan comes across a creaking fir tree he assumes it wants to buy the goat, and when it keeps creaking Ivan assumes it wants to pay later. So he ties the goat to the tree and goes home. Ivan’s brothers are predictably incredulous, but thieves hide their treasure in the tree overnight and when Ivan returns, the money is all there. Ivan’s brothers aren’t about to question a potfull of gold, and they repay Ivan by giving him a single coin and sending him to the city to find a job.

Ivan finds a job with a rich couple as a servant, in charge of “watching the door,” “watching the dog” and “feeding the dog.” Unfortunately, Ivan neglects to close the door and the dog escapes. Ivan cleverly detaches the door from its hinges and takes it with him so that he can keep an eye on it while looking for the dog, and in the forest he meets a bear, apparantly an old friend, who helps him find the dog and carry it back into town. Eventually, through another series of foibles, Ivan ends up heir to the kingdom.

The bear, who is in many ways the smartest character in the film, had the entire audience (including me) in stitches whenever he appeared. His voice acting, a deep, gruff Russian bass, was perfect and dripping with the irony of every absurd situation in which Ivan embroiled himself. Animated in a unique, fast-moving style meant to evoke an elaborate diorama (the camera zooms in on one at the beginning), Ivan‘s backgrounds shift into one another like a pop-up book, giving the film its brisk comedic timing. The film shows that folk tales like this one have been told over and over for generations for a reason: they can be extremely funny with the right storytellers. Aldashin and Uzhinov are the right storytellers. The other films in this series have just worked their way onto my most wanted list.

The Phantom Inventory
2004 Franck Dion, France

This stop-motion animated film follows an impound man’s trip to inventory the belongings of an old collector for seizure. The collector, who wears thick glasses and is confined to a wheelchair, says he collects “memories that people don’t want anymore.” As the impound man first begins putting the tags reading “A Saisir” (to be seized) on the old man’s collection, it seems like a normal collection of souvenirs. But as the inventory progresses, the impound man realizes that these unwanted memories have taken on a life of their own, and that there may even be some of his own errant thoughts among them.

Though an interesting concept and a nice effort at bringing it to life, I don’t think Phantom Inventory quite works. The stop-motion animation is not crisp and quick enough to really convince the audience of the reality of the world. The climax has impact, but not as much as it might have if the film had perhaps been animated in a different fashion, one not so tied to literal physical reality as stop-motion. The bandoneon music by Pierre Caillet is very nice, though.

In the Rough
2004 Paul Taylor, United States

This film was produced by Blur Studio, which also produced Gopher Broke, an Oscar nominee and another film in competition at SICAF. A caveman gets kicked out of the house (or cave) by his woman, and he must go to great lengths to win his way back in. The character animation reaffirms the increasing ability of computer animation to emulate a cartoony style, and the forest environment, while not as rich as it might be, is still lushly rendered. In the Rough is a worthy comic short.

Gopher Broke
2004 Jeff Fowler, United States

Gopher Broke is another traditional comic cartoon short from Blur Studio. The gopher from the title yearns for the produce heading to the local farmer’s market, and so he creates a pothole to force each passing truck to yield a portion of its booty. In keeping with American cartoon tradition, of course the gopher never actually acquires the treasures he’s seeking, deprived of them in extremely funny fashion by various freeloading animals.

It’s easy to see why Gopher was nominated for an Academy Award. The film bursts with comic energy and revives the formerly reigning American tradition of cartoon spontaneity: the alternating bliss at thinking he’s finally acquired his prize and subsequent rage at losing it that appears on the gopher’s stupid face are impossibly funny. The Pixar influence is obvious in Blur’s work, but that’s fine, because Gopher Broke is just as delightful as (and even a little more anarchic than) Pixar’s short films. Both this film and In the Rough deserve to be attached to a feature so they can reach a wider audience.

Din
2005 Gilles Cuvelier, Belgium/France

This contemplative French film finds a carnival-goer awakening in a deserted city. His painted face, long umbrella and high heels look hopelessly out of place in the empty streets. He is startled (and so is the audience) when thousands of fish start raining down from the skies, covering the city in a fine layer of picine remains. This gives him an idea, however. If all the fish have come to land, then perhaps the carnival-goers have gone to the sea?

The carnival-goer is richly and expressively animated, and his chubby face gives his motions character. The city is the man’s only co-star, and it too is beautifully rendered.

Africa a.F.r.I.c.A
2004 Han Tae-ho, Korea

Han’s computer-animated film begins with a little African girl crossing a desert with a group of Africans, carrying a bucket of some sort of gruel. The shots of starving children that citizens of developed countries inevitably associate with the continent communicate to the audience (as though we needed a reminder) that it would be very bad if the girl dropped this food. Of course she does, summoning a whale, who lifts her on a dream journey that sees the desert transformed into a lush jungle. The dream ends with psychodelic animals leaping into the sun, with only the girl left behind.

I had high hopes for this film, but it turned out to be an unfortunate disappointment. The film’s message, which is already prone to heavy-handedness (UNICEF was among the film’s sponsors), comes off as trite and preachy thanks to the aforementioned cliche images of starving people and the just-as-cliched natural transformation. The animation is very good, but animals (and humans) still seem overly blocky, and the obvious reuse of the animal models makes the ending feel even more artificial. Han and his studio are clearly capable of pulling off a good film. Hopefully they will choose a theme closer to home and easier to address next time.

Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek
2004 Shuhei Morita, Japan

Renart the FoxKakurenbo is the first film from Shuhei Morita’s brand new studio, Yamatoworks. It describes a game of forbidden hide and seek, played by a group of children in fox masks who travel to a parallel world in which five demons chase them. The children this time around include an incipient mob boss and his two minions, a boy looking for his sister, two unspeaking twin sisters, and there are a few others in there too. As you can tell, the characters are largely forgettable.

The film is entirely computer-animated, which is its biggest problem. Next to its companions in the screening, Kakurenbo felt mechanical and talky. The opening features one long pan shot, with dozens of lines of expository dialogue, and the film never quite finds its stride. The masks on the characters, which we never see them without, make the humans seem as robotic as the demons. The upshot of which is that when the big twist hits the audience in the end, it has little emotional impact. Though it features a cool science fiction/fantasy/action concept that was lacking in all the other shorts and several shots of the demons are boo!-worthy, animator laziness in the execution renders Kakurenbo rather dull.

The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello
2004 Anthony Lucas, Australia

The DistrictThis was by far my favorite non-comedic short out of all the professional shorts I was able to see. Lucas’s world is a place where people live in massive structures hanging in the sky, and giant mechanical airships traverse the skies as though they were the high seas. Jasper Morello was a navigator on one of these airships, until he made a mistake of one compass degree that cost a man his life. But the sky city of Gothia is in trouble: a deadly plague is slowly and irreversibly killing the population. Jasper finally regains his license and his first voyage is a scientific one to a floating island, to gather samples for the Academy. They shipwreck in a storm, though, finding their way aboard an ship with the entire crew dead, killed by a terrible monster. At the Academy doctor’s insistence they proceed to the island, where they find another one of the monsters and accidentally discover that its blood is the cure for the plague. Against the Captain’s judgment they load several cocoons of the bloodsucking animal on board and head home. When crew members start disappearing Jasper begins to suspect the doctor, but he’s learned that his wife has the plague and so getting the monster home is her only chance of survival.

The story is a classic science fiction creation, reminiscent of an anthology radio show, of the type not often seen today. Its sinister progression is enhanced by the film’s dark look. Except for the plague sores, the entire film is in two-tone, as though we are watching the film’s shadow and not the film itself. Lucas’s characters, with their black and white frames and puppet-like motion, could pass for silhouettes of some of Edward Gorey’s creations, while the skyships seem like darkened versions of Miyazaki’s airships from Castle in the Sky. Those longing for a return to the suspenseful old days of science fiction, wrapped up in a foreboding animated package, should seek out Jasper Morello.

For more from SICAF 2005, see Toon Zone’s review of the opening film The Place Promised in Our Early Days and Pororo to the Cookie Castle and of The District, The Place Promised in Our Early Days and Pororo to the Cookie Castle.

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