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"Animation Express 2" – Back for More from the Great White North

by on December 12, 2011

All aboard!About two years ago, the National Film Board of Canada released Animation Express, an anthology of their finest animated short films, as part of their celebration of their 70th anniversary. They must have been happy with the results, because they’ve just released Animation Express 2, which commemorates nothing except the NFB’s longstanding commitment to animation. However, this second anthology suffers in the same way many sequels or follow-ups do. The first set had several years of work to choose from, even within its self-imposed constraints on “recent” animation. This second one draws from only two years’ worth of films, and while there is some excellent material on this disc, the overall quality falls significantly short compared to the first installment. The first disc had at least a half-dozen shorts worth the price of admission by themselves and remarkably few real duds. I’m not sure I’d say the former of even my favorite shorts on this release, while there are significantly more misfires as well.

As with the first release, Animation Express 2 comes as a 2-disc DVD and a 1-disc Blu-ray, with bonus shorts on the Blu-ray and one presented in genuine home theater 3-D if you have the setup for it. It is also presented bilingually in both the menus and the soundtracks, although as before there is no way to tell whether there is no way to tell whether the filmmaker intended the spoken dialogue to be in English or French. There are no extras other than a trailer for the first Animation Express.

The following films are those included on the Blu-ray. Click a title to visit the NFB’s site to watch clips or shorts, and find “making of” material.

“Big Drive”: This hand-drawn short centers on four sisters dealing with the monotony of a lengthy cross-country drive with their parents. Unfortunately, the short is a bit too successful at capturing the boredom and repetitiveness of a long road trip (especially in the pre-handheld electronics age when the movie is set). This is partially by design, the better to liven up the film significantly about halfway through, as the girls’ combined imaginations take flight in a delightful fantasy land. Still, one gets the point well before the short sets up the other side of the contrast. The snapshots that run alongside the credits make it clear that this short is autobiographical.

“Big Drive”: A mostly charming short whose most distinctive feature is its stark black-and-white presentation. The lead character Matt is a young boy who is blind, and the short finds many creative ways to depict his perspective through the “eyes” in his hands, feet, ears, and nose that guide him through the world. The animation looks like it features hand-drawn characters in CGI landscapes, which I presume aids the 3-D presentation of this movie (the only short enhanced for 3-D home theatre setups).

Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.: A delightful short that eschews realism in favor of a style that echoes shadow puppets or papercut animation to tell a story of World War II in Holland. Four sisters and their mother opt to unravel the mother’s bridal bedspread, turning the yarn into 55 socks which the mother tries to barter for food. The ending is a twist worthy of O. Henry.

“Rose & Violet”: A truly bizarre and outlandish tale of a set of twins congenitally joined at the wrist . Of course, after getting abandoned at an orphanage, the pair does the only sensible thing and runs off to join the circus. There’s more involving the circus strongman, his ornery beast, and the twins’ growing conflict over their future as circus performers, but this short is probably better experienced than described.

“55 Socks”: This superb short tells a Native American fable of a young girl who is the light of her father’s eye, despite the jealous reactions of her sisters. It has the not-quite-linear structure of many Native American folk tales, and several plot threads don’t work out quite as imagined. The hand-drawn animation looks very much like a child’s drawing or the simple illustrations of a children’s book, and it works very well with the story.

There must be more to life than having everything!: This Maurice Sendak adaptation was previously released as a standalone DVD and as part of the home video release of the Where the Wild Things Are. My evaluation of this short hasn’t changed much.

“Higglety Pigglety Pop!”: An oddball short (recently nominated for an Annie Award) of a boy’s Sunday routine in a tiny town whose major defining feature is the train tracks that run through it. Like “Big Drive,” I think it’s a little too effective at evoking the tedium it’s intending to depict, but it is reasonably clever and charming.

“Sunday”: Another autobiographical short from animator Andrea Dorfman that starts with her long-distance relationship with a plastic surgeon before meandering off to Dorfman’s childhood and her discovery of her physical flaws. Not bad, but the real attention-grabber is the animation style, which places a camera over a drawing table as Dorfman draws and paints a picture for each segment of the movie. It’s an interesting combination that builds on comics and animation to become a hybrid of both.

“Flawed”: I will voice my full-throated admiration for this film’s use of squash and stretch in ways that only hand-drawn animation can achieve. The grotesque caricatures in the film will distort so much while moving that limbs will become temporarily disconnected from bodies, giving the entire short the sensibility of a fever dream. Unfortunately, the short is turgid, pretentious claptrap whose trick of telling its story in reverse is undermined as soon as the title appears. It might be exaggerating for comic effect, but if so, it suffers for just not being all that funny.

“The Bare-Wolf”: Exclusive to the Blu-ray, this endearingly idiotic short depicts what happens when a redneck wolf is bitten by a human being. The results are bizarrely, transgressively funny, if more than a little lowbrow. It’s something the sensibilities of SpongeBob SquarePants with much more explicit bodily humor. The animation resembles papercuts colored with crayons, giving it a childish bent at odds with the events shown.

Exeunt, pursued by a bear: Another Blu-ray exclusive, this short and sweet film was a product of the Nunavut Animation Lab, putting animation into the hands of the indigenous people of Canada as a way for them to tell and preserve their stories. I’m not sure which I love more: the sly sense of humor the short displays, or the wonderful melding of hand drawn elements, watercolor backgrounds, and computer-assisted animation.

“Pumpkins and Old Lace”: Stop-motion animation lends this short an welcome air of unreality as a young photographer visits a senior citizens home to find a model for adult incontinence undergarments. I don’t dare spoil the surprise in store, fully revealed once one sees the name of the rest home.

“The Bear Facts”: This short manages to become abstract modern art, but unfortunately I don’t mean that in a good way. A tedious exercise in color manipulation set to the kind of modern classical music that treats stringed instruments like atonal logs of wood to be sawn through.

“CMYK”: Another short that I appreciate more on a technical level than an artistic one. The hand-drawn short mixes media from hard ink lines and shadows to panels to colored pencils and more mixed media formats, and the short is also quite effective at creating a vague sense of unease as we witness what might be a deeply traumatic event. Unfortunately, the ending seems to make things more explicit, which both reduces the short’s effectiveness and is more than a little seedy and unpalatable, if the event being shown is what I suspect it is.

“La Formation des Nuages/The Formation of Clouds”: Yet another technical success that I’m not entirely sold on as a movie. This short resembles oil paintings mixed with pencil drawings brought to life, and morphs fluidly and intriguingly from scene to scene. However, this story of two people falling in love is barely sketched in, leaving me apathetic on who these people are and why their romance should mean anything to me, no matter how wondrously the short was constructed.

“Romance”: A disorienting short that reminds me of “The Trembling Veil of Bones” in its deliberate use of the Uncanny Valley as an aesthetic tool rather than an unfortunate accident. In this case, it is achieved by inserting a live actor in costume and heavy makeup into a fabricated world that mixes photographs, hand-written text, CGI, and some hand animated effects. Unfortunately, while the short is about as effective as “Madame Tutli-Putli” in creating a sense of acute unease, it doesn’t manage to be as effective as a film. There is a lot of arresting imagery, but one is left more baffled than unsettled once the initial shock wears off.

I got a black cat bone and a mojo too, I got a John the Conqueroot, I'm gonna mess with you: This visually arresting short is a very loose biography of early film pioneer Eadward Muybridge, whose zoopraxiscope was the arguably the first device that could depict motion on screen. The short covers a surprising amount of Muybridge’s life, from his first experiments to his murder of his wife’s lover. Unfortunately, the short becomes more self-indulgent than informative as it goes, insisting on surrealist images with little to no obvious connection to Muybridge.

“Muybridge’s Strings”: You know how they write the reel or the name of the movie at the start of a physical piece of film, and how that looks like a big mess of white noise when it gets projected in a theater? Imagine that for about seven minutes set to a minimalist modern classical “music” soundtrack and you’ll know what it is to experience this complete waste of time masquerading as abstract art. Supposedly all captured on location, visually and aurally, at Brazil’s Mamori lake, but this doesn’t make me any more positively inclined towards this short.

“Mamori”: Like “Muybridge’s Strings,” this short is semi-biographical, with the subject this time being filmmaker Arthur Lipsett. Unfortunately, despite some technically accomplished and visually interesting animation, the short is barely coherent, failing to give much reason to understand why Lipsett was important, whether or not you know who he was.

“Lipsett Diaries”: This short is all too real and comprehensible, depicting the horrors of World War I in monochromatic, impressionistic ink washes. The short uses the medium of animation quite effectively, allowing for visually interesting transitions and some truly nightmarish sequences, especially a sequence near the end where troops charge out of their trench into murderous fire. The initial realism gives way to some images of surreal horror as bodies are blown into ink lines or melt into the ground, only to return to life as angry skeletons.

“The Trenches”: This short is one of the standouts on this disc. Based on Bernice Eisenstein’s book of the same title, this mostly monochromatic short is focused on personal history, with a kind of deliberately unfocused train of thought that feels like the way one would speak with a therapist in a dream. There is a surprising amount of dry humor to be found in this short, much of it self-deprecating, but it also serves to counterbalance the horrors of the Holocaust, even if those horrors are more felt and sensed than actually seen.

It's sad, so sad, All your friends gather round, 'Cause the circus left town: The title of this silent short is ironic, as it is a devastatingly personal and tremendously affecting piece of filmmaking right from the opening shot of an old woman in a heavy winter coat emanating frost as she enters a room. Characters drawn in a scratchy pencil style morph into grotesqueries as a child watches an event he does not completely understand, and their behavior becomes even more unseemly as it becomes clear what the “circus” of the title is referring to. The final heartbreaking image and dedication are the clearest indication that this short is autobiographical. It might be the best short on this disc, and is certainly one of the most memorable.

“The Circus”: This fascinating documentary looks at four individuals with Down Syndrome, allowing all of them an avenue to express their thoughts and feelings by making animation. The short is a fascinating look at people who tend to be misunderstood and underestimated, and there is much more depth and sensitivity to their work than many would give them credit for. The only pity is that this wonderful and heartwarming short is a Blu-ray exclusive; there are several other shorts on this disc I’d have dropped in favor of getting this one in front of as wide an audience as possible.

“Tying Your Own Shoes”: This tribute film to conductor Yannnick Nézet-Séguin was made to commemorate his receiving the 2010 National Arts Award. It uses animation techniques to augment reality, as clips of one of his performances are interspersed with the conductor discussing his feelings about music and conducting. Abstract shapes spring to life within the frame in reaction to both. It’s an interesting short, although Nézet-Séguin doesn’t go into much depth in the five-minute running time. It’s also hard to shake the sense that Walt Disney mined this territory more effectively more than 70 years ago in Fantasia. This short is the last Blu-ray exclusive.

I'm wearing fur pajamas: The closing film (the second on this collection to be nominated this year for an Annie Award) is a beautifully painted short about a young Englishman sent to Alberta in 1909 to make his fortune. The ironic title belies an extremely stately sense of pacing that is deliberately slower than normal and emphasizes the sense of isolation and boredom that the lead character feels, even as he writes chipper (if not entirely honest) notes home. Unlike “Big Drive” and “Sunday,” this short manages to evoke a sense of tedium without becoming tedious.

Animation Express 2 is currently available direct from the NFB on “Wild Life” and DVD; I’d pay the extra $3.00 for the Blu-ray if you’re capable of playing it, for both the video quality and three of the five bonus shorts.

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