Imagine going to a comedy festival and discovering that more than half the entries were limericks and knock-knock jokes. That's comparable to the disparity of material in The Animation Show 4, an annual roundup of animated shorts created and programmed by Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt. "Spike & Mike's Sick and Twisted Animation Festival" already caters to lower-brow cartoon creativity, and this year's collection emphasizes darkly comic slapstick at the expense of the art form's other expressive possibilities. The Animation Show 4 misses an opportunity to showcase more variety, even though its fourth year presents plenty of fast and funny shorts.
And that's not to say that darkly humorous slapstick – or limericks and knock-knock jokes, for that matter – aren't entertaining. The final show on the bill, "This Way Up" from the English directing team of Smith & Foulkes, offers a small masterpiece of deadpan humor and physical comedy as a pair of stone-faced morticians labor to carry a casket across the countryside. In the festival's most appealing surprise, the short's monochromatic color scheme gives way to bursts of brilliant hues and dreamlike images at the finale.
You can probably guess the punchline of the recurring cartoons titled "Yompi, The Loveable Crotch-Biting Sloup." Even the silliest of the show's violent, irreverent shorts reveal splashes of creativity and come to quick conclusions: The rare duds don't overstay their welcome. So many hinge on sight gags and high-speed chase scenes (often both), it's as if the filmmakers are auditioning to work on the next CGI feature from DreamWorks or Pixar.
In contrast, some of the show's highlights emphasize awkward silences and conversational humor, particularly "John and Karen," in which a polar bear apologizes to a penguin, and "Angry Unpaid Hooker," with a young couple arguing over the presence of the title role in its apartment. The latter evokes Comedy Central's old show "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist," despite – or maybe because of – its primitive animation style.
Veteran animator Bill Plympton makes a droll return to form with "Hot Dog," about an excitable mutt who aspires to be a firehouse dog. Among the few serious entries, "Forgetfulness" offers a bittersweet collage of cut-out photographs to illustrate Billy Collins' witty, melancholy poem of the same name. "Jeu" presents cosmopolitan street scenes in constant shifting patterns reminiscent of M.C. Escher, accompanied by Prokofiev music. Such shorts capture animation's power to convey lovely images and deeper emotions, and hint at how much better the The Animation Show could be if it aimed a little higher.