Know the difference between the animation festival you saw 10 years ago and the program screening all this week at the World Animation Celebration? This year's show will cost you more money. Animation continues to roll along as steadily as ever, yet much remains the same. The few exceptions - such as technical advances in computer animation and ever-more-stunning product from Japan - can't make up for an otherwise static state of affairs.
But it's really not so bad. The single most significant development of the past decade, computer animation, continues to bear fruit as the motherlode of possibility, and it's in particularly fine form when integrated with live action. The main drawback, however, is computer animation's inherent absence of any sense of real life within its digital world. Chuck Jones' One Froggy Evening, more than 40 years old and just 11 minutes long, contains more recognizable humanity than all 80 minutes of Disney's digital showpiece, Toy Story. Animators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have taken this conundrum and run with it - all the way to South Park. Their hit series on Comedy Central is computer animation's first real triumph.
Despite - perhaps because of - its minimalist sloppy design, the show pushes the limits where animation needs it most: storytelling. In just a handful of episodes so far, the South Park kids have seen a dog experiment with homosexuality, taught a starving African child how to eat like an American, watched a pay-per-view battle between Jesus and Satan, and, in a new episode this week, they'll fight the "ultimate evil" with help from guest stars Leonard Maltin and The Cure's Robert Smith. And you thought Ann-Margrock was cool.
But something is amiss when the best animation is already on TV instead of on the festival circuit. Saturday Night Live's "Ambiguously Gay Duo" (a pair of crimefighters in tights who may or may not be) kicks the ass of half of what's screening at this year's second annual Celebration. Kirsten Winter's Smash, for instance, is an inexplicable, overlong symphony in oils; Joanna Priestley's cutout animation Utopia Parkway, touted as "an experimental tour de force," consists of rhythmic images of things like mouths morphing into things like fruit and back into things like mouths.
In the midst of what is mostly unremarkable, sometimes impenetrable and occasionally unbearable (at least in the subjects available for pre-screening), the World Animation Celebration does offer several noteworthy selections. Piet Kroon's T.R.A.N.S.I.T., painted with stark color and sharp line, undoes standard narrative form in its tale of murder in the transcontinental '20s. Steve Box puts a film-within-a-film spin on his brilliantly detailed clay-animation short Stagefright, set in the final days of vaudeville. Geri's Game, a fully digital short by Jan Pinkava, and an Academy Award nominee, furthers the dazzle of Pixar-brand computer animation. With his feature I Married a Strange Person and his latest collection of shorts, Sex & Violence, Bill Plympton, as always, makes you feel nice and queasy. And although this really should go without saying, nothing in the Japanese animation "festival within the festival" should be missed (U.S. premieres include Dirty Pair Flash and Ayane's High Kick, plus there's a tribute to Speed Racer).
The competition of shorts (more than 900 entries in 41 categories) is the central focus of the World Animation Celebration, and aspiring animators will find lots more of interest than can be mentioned here. There are conferences, colloquiums, summits and expos, seminars, tutorials, receptions and presentations. But, kids, come armed with some fresh ideas. Remember, Chuck Jones didn't need a computer mouse to create Michigan J. Frog, just a good story. And of course, if you've got a mouse, don't be afraid to use it. Japan shouldn't be the only nation to give its kiddies violent seizures.
The World Animation Celebration runs Monday-Saturday, February 16-21 at the Pasadena Center, 300 E. Green St. Call (818) 991-5275 for more information.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.