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National Film Board of Canada's "Animation Express": Here's to Another 70 Years

The residents of Canada are fortunate enough to receive a high-quality, state-funded resource that is critical to life in this modern world, making them the envy of the civilized world and clearly a model to be emulated as soon as practically possible in the United States. I am referring, of course, to the wonderful animation funded by the National Film Board of Canada. The NFB’s unflagging support of the art of animation has led to some of the best work in the medium in recent decades, with numerous awards and accolades to their credit. To celebrate its 70th anniversary, the NFB has assembled Animation Express, a 2-DVD set of some of their finest recent work. The set is a wonderful palate cleanser, providing a wonderful variety in voices and subject matter and really showing off what the medium of animation is capable of, especially when compared to the more homogenous and far less daring offerings available in the United States. Most of the shorts on this set are lacking in dialogue, perhaps playing up animation’s strength in visual storytelling or perhaps as a way to deal with a more linguistically split nation.

The links below are for each short film’s official pages on the NFB’s website, leading to a streaming video version wherever possible.

DISC ONE:

- “Madame Tutli-Putli” - A hauntingly beautiful and deeply unsettling stop-motion animated movie that was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award. The title character takes a ride on a train that feels more like a descent into hell. Everything about the short seems designed to make you uncomfortable, from the bizarre imagery to the incredibly realistic stop-motion animation and the live-action eyes digitally composited onto the models. In fact, this is the first animated film I’ve ever seen that exploits the Uncanny Valley as a stylistic choice to achieve a specific effect, rather than plunging headlong into it to produce a horrific aesthetic accident.

“Forming Game/Jeu de Forme” – Mesmerizing hieroglyphic shapes that morph and change, staying just on the other side of comprehensibility. The gimmick is a board game played by two people, and the ending nicely gives a bit more meaning to what came before without actually explaining any of it.

“Hungu” – Paper-cut style animation telling a tale of a primitive hunter-gatherer people that’s no less affecting for its highly stylized look and complete absence of dialogue. The tale of a boy living through hard times with his tribe and the loss of his mother is beautifully set to African instruments.

“Rosa Rosa” – One of a few shorts on this collection that has dialogue, this is a multi-media animated piece that uses photos run through assorted Photoshop filters as backgrounds for hand-drawn animated characters. The story of a man and a woman having a child during wartime is somewhat frustrating, being rather opaque both visually and narratively to no discernible good purpose. It is notable for being truly bilingual, with both English and French soundtracks and no indication for which is intended to be the short’s “native” language.

“L’ondée/Rains” – A quiet, very deliberately paced movie that uses monochromatic pencil art to show a dozen isolated events in a city during a rainstorm. Perhaps not terribly ambitious, but the art and the music both lend the whole thing a palpable sense of melacholy. This short also seems to make more use of surround sound than most other shorts on the set, making you feel as though you are in the center of a massive rainstorm.

“Retouches” – Painted artwork makes this short come to life, and the visuals are very good at hiding the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of substance here other than stream of consciousness morphing games. Still, the playful visual creativity at work is surprising and fun.

“Subservience/Révérence” – Another mesmerizingly surreal stop-motion film suffused with a bitter sense of irony. The arresting image of a pair of well-dressed travelers walking through a wasteland with a blood colored sky as their servants roll and unroll red carpets to ensure their feet don’t touch the ground is not an easy one to forget.

“Spare Change” – Spontaneous, scratchy pencil line art by the late Ryan Larkin marks this short that may start with the mundane urban reality of a panhandler trying to hustle up spare change, but that reality quickly gives way to longer and longer fantasy sequences that eventually turns into an oddball music video, which also injects color into the previously black-and-white images. Delightfully non-sensical.

- “The Spine” – This unforgettable short by Oscar winner Chris Landreth features the kind of surreal imagery that doesn’t normally appear in CGI animation. It’s a story that speaks in vaguely comprehensible parables about a co-dependent couple and the way their lives develop together and apart from each other.

“L’Homme qui Dort/The Man Who Slept” – Skewed perspectives, sepia tones, and a peculiar sense of depth created by creative use of CGI and digital compositing make this short visually distinctive. Try to avoid the plot synopses for this one. This story of a smothered housewife whose husband does nothing but sleep and the temptation she faces from a handsome circus performer starts off looking like a parable for one thing at first, but makes a terrific twist to change into something entirely different by the end.

“How People Got Fire” – This short mixes the same digital rotoscoping used in “Waking Life” or “A Scanner Darkly” and more traditional pencil-drawn hand-animation, using the former for a framing story of life in a Canadian indigenous community and the latter for a traditional folktale of how people got fire from Raven and the birds. The blending of the two occasionally allows the magical world to bleed into the “real” one in unexpected ways, although both stories feel frustratingly unresolved.

“Robe du Guerre/Robes of War” – An ink on paper look at war, with a burkha-clad woman morphing into soldiers and implements of destruction, all played out over a melancholy pipe organ. The short is very technically accomplished, but I’m not really sure if it’s as deep as it thinks it is.

“Drux Flux” – This odd short closes this disc, stitching together photos of an abandoned factory and 1940’s and 1950’s propaganda posters. Unfortunately, this is mostly done in service for a mostly anti-industrialization message that’s not terribly original and in animation that’s in-name-only.

DISC TWO:

- “Sleeping Betty” – A retelling of the “Sleeping Beauty” fairy tale told with divinely inspired silliness and a hilariously bizarre cast of characters. The whole short is packed with creative sight gags that are wonderfully, vividly animated. It’s what you’d get if Monty Python, Bill Plympton, and Chuck Jones managed to somehow produce a bizarro love child.

“The Necktie” – A mixture of stop-motion and hand-drawn animation with very specific purpose for the mix. The short focuses on the soul-crushing monotony of 9-to-5 living as a young man puts away his childish things and starts his first job, wearing the necktie of the title that symbolizes so many other things. An entertaining, if somewhat trite, statement about artists vs. the squares.

“Come Again in Spring” - Stunningly beautiful watercolor animation makes this tale of an old man cheating death far more gripping than it might have been. Similar tales have been told before, but the deliberately slow pacing and odd sense of timing, paired with a spare soundtrack, make the whole thing palpably eerie and strange.

“HA’Aki” – A hockey game as presented by a series of abstract shapes, oddball noises, and an experimental minimalist soundtrack. Interesting as a visual experiment, but really not much else. Thankfully, it’s also rather short.

“Here and There” – An autobiographical film that uses a deliberately over-simplified art style and a cast of stylized birds. I’m sure this is a deeply meaningful film for director Diane Obomsawin, but unfortunately I can’t say I found much in the upheavals of her childhood that was truly original or moving.

“Flutter” – Attempting to impress a girl, a teenage boy runs off the track field and through a city, progressing on to ever-more outlandish places on his beat-up sneakers with little newspaper wings attached to them. The lack of any real narrative sense is more than made up by the short’s sense of whimsy and expressive black-and-white line animation.

“Engine 371″ – A short that depicts what happens when model trains get out of hand, perhaps meant as a parable for the transformation of wild spaces during the steam engine era. The animation looks like Flash, and it’s a pleasant enough short with bright colors and a distinctive visual style, even if the twist can be seen coming from pretty early on.

- “Invasion of the Space Lobsters” – You’d have to screw up pretty badly for me to dislike a short with a title like that. Fortunately, this short does not screw up pretty badly, although it does definitely go in directions you might not expect and takes a little longer than necessary to get to the punch line. Mostly a joke at the expense of 50’s monster movies and those impenetrable documents that seem to be invading more and more aspects of modern life.

“Sainte Barbe” – A dialogue-less stop-motion fable that looks and feels like something Tim Burton would have come up with on a day when he was feeling particularly morbid. A little boy visits his grandparents in the forest, especially enjoying his time with his bushy-bearded grandfather until the old man passes away. The ending is ultimately rather sweet, but there’s a whole lot of appealingly odd and borderline creepy imagery along the way.

“Paradise” – An amusing look at the supposedly ideal 1950’s life of a businessman, as done by tin toys on tracks animated in stop-motion. Things go wrong, of course. The surprising thing is how well the film can sell the emotional moments in the second half of the film strictly with timing and body language.

“Vive la Rose” – A hauntingly beautiful animated short set to the music of Émile Benoit. The story seems to vaguely follow the lyrics of the song, which tells a tale of tragic love that’s reflected in hand-drawn images. Impressionistic and oddly moving, despite the abstract sensibilities and even if you can’t fully understand the French lyrics of the song.

- “Land of the Heads” – A wonderfully macabre little stop-motion fairy tale about a henpecked vampire trying to satisfy his unduly particular wife and her demand for a new head to replace her current one (which hangs on the wall). The results are something like a three-dimensional Charles Addams cartoon, with a delightfully dark sense of humor tempering what would otherwise be some rather gruesome imagery.

“Runaway” – Closing this set is another train ride, except this one is a manic hand-drawn film about a steam train hurtling out of control on winding mountain roads and through the countryside. Its oddball sense of humor and gleeful sense of anarchy combine with a quirky sense of comedic timing to make this short a real winner.

The DVD presents these shorts in wonderfully crisp anamorphic widescreen, which brings out much more detail than what you’ll be able to see on streaming Internet video. Sound is provided in 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital in both French and English. The DVD design also seems to reflect Canada’s more bilingual nature, since the menus are offered in both French and English and neither one offers an alternate choice of language or the option to activate subtitles. As mentioned, most films make minimal use of dialogue, and films like “Rosa Rosa” are bilingual, but the rest incorporate subtitles as part of the image where necessary. Disc 2 contains a handful of trailers, but other than that, there are no bonus features to speak of, such as the “making of” clips that are available on the NFB website. Animation Express is also available on a Blu-ray disc, which includes 13 more shorts than those on the DVD set.

Anthology collections are always a bit of a risk, but Animation Express, like the animated output of the NFB in general, has a staggeringly good hit-to-miss ratio with the high points outweighing the low points by far. It’s a wonderful collection of the state of the art, and one that makes me look forward eagerly to the NFB’s next 70 years.

Animation Express is available directly from the NFB on DVD DVD and Blu-ray.

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