While the big-studio animation boom proceeds apace -- with Disney, Fox and DreamWorks each releasing an expensive feature (Fantasia/2000, Titan A.E. and Chicken Run, respectively) within a single eight-day span -- dedicated animators around the world grind away, producing short works of genius and near-genius for little glory and even less money. With the arguable exception of Japanese anime, these fabulously energetic artists are the primary source of the new ideas that get snapped up by the studios. Without them, traditional Disney animation would still be the only game in town.
Unless you haunt animation festivals, the only reliable way to catch most of this material is through touring compilation shows -- of which Spike & Mike's Classic Festival of Animation is now the clear leader. Those who are only now discovering the wonders of Aardman Animation in Chicken Run could have been yukking it up at Nick Park's earlier Wallace and Gromit shorts by way of earlier Spike & Mike anthologies; likewise, Spike & Mike shows have included works from Pixar (A Bug's Life and both Toy Story films) and Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) long before Disney wisely backed their features.
It's hard to predict which artists contributing to the current collection of 14 films will move into the more popular (read: better distributed) studio world, but there are a number of standouts in the batch. My overall favorite is Konstantin Bronzit's "At the Ends of the Earth" ("Au bout du monde") (France/Russia), which has won numerous international prizes, including Funniest Film at Annecy, the world's biggest animation festival. This irresistible piece of silliness about a house precariously balanced on a peak is, in the best sense, a textbook model of how to take a simple gag concept and then amplify and compound it to the limit.
Dutch animator Paul Driessen has been turning out extraordinary work for more than three decades, including "On Land, at Sea, and in the Air," "The Writer" and "House on the Rails". His current film, the 10-minute, Oscar-nominated "3 Misses," is as brilliant as anything he's done; it once again combines broad humor with a sense of structural play. Three dialogue-free stories -- each involving a damsel in distress and her would-be rescuers -- are intercut in a manner that aggressively disregards temporal reality.
Another Oscar nominee, "When the Day Breaks," from Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, employs a weird sort of narrative continuity not dissimilar to Driessen's, but for largely poignant effect. Its portrait of the ways in which urbanites are connected and yet totally separate from each other has a bittersweet effect that defies analysis.
Aardman Animation is represented by four brief episodes of Darren Walsh's "Angry Kid," together with Peter Peake's more accomplished "Humdrum." The latter isn't in Aardman's usual plasticine-animation process but at least appears to have been done entirely in silhouettes. The lovely irony that its two main characters are themselves playing a game of shadow puppets is still not its funniest joke.
Kirby Atkins' claymation "Mutt" is an amusing fantasy of what one might expect in a comedy club for dogs. Norwegian director Pjotr Sapegin's "One Day a Man Bought a House" is an oddball story about a female rat who misinterprets a human being's attempts to exterminate her as some sort of mating ritual. And, finally, "Village of Idiots," Eugene Fedorenko and Rose Newlove's version of one of the old Yiddish stories about Chelm, the legendarily stupidest town in the world, is quite amusing; still it feels as though the artists should be applauded more for their choice of source material than for its execution.
Plays at 9 p.m. July 20-22 at Webster University.