Critics and fans of so-called serious animation like to complain that children hijacked their favorite art form. It's true that the vast majority of animated films and television, whether stop-motion "claymation," computer-generated, hand-drawn or some combination, target juvenile audiences with brightly colored stories and tame messages.
But maybe that should be viewed as a relief. Animation has enormous power to tap the subconscious, to create images that haunt and unsettle. The Atlanta Film Festival's latest Animation Extravaganza suggests that if most cartoon films were aimed at grown-ups, we might end up as nervous wrecks. Though the Animation Extravaganza features some appealing moments of comic relief, its disturbingly imaginative nightmares and dreamscapes aren't easy to shake off.
Perhaps the most impressive -- and certainly the longest -- short film on the bill is this year's half-hour Oscar-winner, "The Moon and the Son." The opening line braces you for nostalgic sentiment: "My father died in 1995, but I keep talking to him inside my head." As the imaginary conversation begins between animator John Canemaker (voiced by John Turturro) and his dad (Eli Wallach), the pair cover not just Greatest Generation stuff like the father winning two Purple Hearts. The son's confrontational queries bring up his father's rage, his involvement with organized crime and his conviction on an arson charge.
Like an animated equivalent to autobiographical documentaries like Tarnation, "The Moon and the Son" incorporates home movies, family-album photos, headlines and trial transcripts alongside cartooning that has the simple imagery of newspaper comic strips. By the end, "The Moon and the Son" feels less like a tribute than an exorcism.
Although Disney has, historically, done more to defang animation than any other institution, it presents the bleakest short on the bill. Roger Aller's dialogue-free adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Match Girl" uses beautiful, transitional-style animation to faithfully capture the spirit of the original tale of a homeless girl who escapes into a fantasy world by the light of her last matches. Perhaps one day you'll see it precede a Disney theatrical feature, although it's so unremittingly melancholy it risks leaving children bummed out for days.
Special effects expert Kory Juul presents a similarly melancholy portrait of children and illusion with "The Sandbox," in which a boy builds astonishingly detailed pagodas out of sand that disintegrate the instant his parents turn to look at them. We grow to suspect that the sand castles are figments of his imagination, but a twist worthy of "The Twilight Zone" suggests things are even more complex than they appear. The sci-fi overtones of "The Sandbox" never overwhelm the short's poetic power.
"The Mantis Parable" uses computer-animation to approximate photorealism in a gentle tale of a caterpillar trapped in a jar of an insect collector. Director Josh Staub manages to evoke the feelings of his insect characters while still making them resemble real bugs. Such stop-motion shorts as "Loom" and "Dragon," with their pale, big-eyed characters, cabaret-style music and morbid themes, frequently evoke the goth vibe of Tim Burton's films.
Noteworthy but not on the Animation Extravaganza's bill is "The Wraith of Cobble Hill" (showing Wed., June 14, 10 p.m.; and Fri., June 16, 2:15 p.m., at Landmark Midtown Art Cinemas). Adam Parrish King's chilly, soft-spoken character study takes place in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill neighborhood at possibly any time in the past half-century. A lonely boy, supporting his alcoholic mother, agrees to help a candy-store owner and his misbegotten mutt. The motives, initially selfish, become more kind-hearted in a tale that feels like a New Yorker magazine short story.
Two pieces riff on other artists. "Man Drawing a Reclining Woman" provides the story behind the Albrecht Durer woodcut of the same name, and implies that great art outlives both the artist and the subject. In "Drawing Lessons," a woman tries to cure her insomnia with an art exercise involving a Picasso portrait, and the counterpoint of art-school aesthetics, psychobabble and the natural world feels organic rather than self-indulgent.
Not all the shorts are downers: "Fumi and the Bad Luck Foot" depicts hilariously dark slapstick as a young girl turns out to be a magnet for misfortunes ranging from ostrich attacks to UFO crashes. (I should acknowledge that I never received screeners of several of the program's more overtly humorous fare such as "The Zit.") Some of the Animation Extravaganza's pieces lack a certain polish -- many of them are the work of either students or one artist's spare time. Virtually none of them, however, would qualify as "harmless."
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