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Atlanta Film Festival gets in toon with Animation Extravaganza

As the home of Cartoon Network, Atlanta can appreciate animation as a part of its cultural voice, even though that part goes largely unsung. The Atlanta Film Festival could perhaps play up the connection more overtly, but the festival nevertheless gives animation a lively showing, presenting an animated feature film as well as two shorts programs, Animation Extravaganza 1 (April 22, 5:45 p.m.; and April 23, 9 p.m.) and Animation Extravaganza 2 (April 22, 8:15 p.m.; and April 24, 9:45 p.m.).

Some of the shorts would fit right in with Cartoon Network's Adult Swim bloc of adult-oriented loony toons. "Home Delivery" from Spain offers a nasty adaptation of a Stephen King zombie story (and even includes a song by R.E.M.), while Patrick Smith's "Puppet" features some S&M slapstick about an abusive sock puppet. "Dirt Nap," the fitfully amusing 33-minute computer-animated short by Mark Estep and Kirk Reid, reveals how a deceased pothead becomes stuck with afterlife's bickering office workers including a foul-mouthed grim reaper and a put-upon Albert Einstein.

Both Extravaganzas strike a similar balance of comedy, drama and the esoteric, but though the first program features Don Hertzfeldt's brilliant dissection of everyday life, "Everything Will Be OK," the second program proves more entertaining and accomplished. DreamWorks' "First Flight," a lovely piece about a harried businessman distracted in his commute by a baby bird, will be one of the biggest crowd-pleasers and seems the most likely potential Animated Oscar nominee of the lot.

Several shorts in Extravaganza 2 comment engagingly on the animation form. "The Waif of Persephone," by Canada's Nick Cross, is a fascinatingly weird adaptation of the Greek myth of Persephone in which a goddess of spring is taken to the underworld. Cross presents the film as a kind of omnibus of 20th-century animation, beginning with rubbery Betty Boop-style animation and encompassing trippy, '60s-style caricatures of Ralph Bakshi. Equally audacious is "Badly Drawn Roy," a sly mockumentary about the life of a poorly drawn animated character born to a live-action Irish family. If you can imagine what England's downbeat filmmaker Mike Leigh would do with the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? concept, you may get an idea.

Far from being kid's stuff, the Danish animated feature Princess (3 stars, 12:45 p.m. April 21) is one of the festival's most disturbing offerings of any kind. An ex-priest adopts the sexually mistreated, 5-year-old daughter of his deceased porn-star sister, vowing to avenge the sister's death and the girl's loss of innocence. Calling it similar to Hardcore and the anime segment of Kill Bill Vol. 1 doesn't do justice to Princess' unnerving strangeness. The late sister appears in live-action video clips from her youth, making us more keenly feel her loss, while presenting the little girl as an animated character distances the audience from the grim nature of her abuse and corruption. Despite the primitive quality of the animation, director Anders Morgenthaler offers such a strange, unsparing vision of corruption that Princess proves to be a bit more than an exploitation/revenge film.

Viewing Princess alongside the two Animation Extravaganzas, the Atlanta Film Festival reveals animators' fascination with some surprisingly big themes. From the rueful humor of "Everything Will Be OK" to the spiritual journeys of such fantasies as "Mirage" and "Aal Im Schadel," animation makes some bold inquiries about the meaning of life and what happens when we bid "Th-th-that's all folks" to this mortal coil.

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