Review: Roulette, a Hangman and Singing Fish, in an Animation Fest

Posted December 28, 2017 4:26 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Those who didn’t watch enough animation in 2017 will feel fully up to date after the “Animation Show of Shows,” an annual traveling program of shorts founded and curated by a producer, Ron Diamond, and showing at the Quad Cinema, starting on Friday. Like most omnibus programs, the offerings are a mixed bag, but this year’s 16 titles showcase a gratifying range of styles and subjects, with work that includes veterans and newcomers, the experimental and the commercial.

Some of the most innovative titles are among the shortest — and Canadian — like Steven Woloshen’s “Casino.” Scored to the Oscar Peterson Trio’s riff on “Something’s Coming,” from “West Side Story,” it conjures the frenzy of a night on the gambling floor in a four-minute swirl of color, evoking roulette wheels, slot machines and card games with an almost abstract expressionist simplicity of line. (While conventional animation involves photographing illustrations, Woloshen draws directly on strips of film.)

The Montreal-based animator Alexanne Desrosiers’s offbeat “Les Abeilles Domestiques (Domestic Bees)” begins with an inset image of the Grim Reaper visiting an elderly couple, then unfolds outward, with multiplying, beehivelike panels, to form a cryptic split-screen mosaic of the life cycle. It’s proof that great animation doesn’t demand a certain medium or budget — this two-minute short was made with commercially available computer software — just a fresh vantage point. Given how busy each panel is, the movie demands viewing on a large, eye-filling screen, similar to the kind used at the 1967 Montreal Expo.

One of the revivals, “Hangman,” from 1964, was shown in school classrooms to provoke discussion. Paul Julian (a veteran of the Looney Tunes background team) and Les Goldman (who shared an Oscar with Chuck Jones in 1966 for “The Dot and the Line”) employ creepily angular imagery to illustrate Maurice Ogden’s poem “The Hangman,” a rhyming allegory about a town’s acquiescence to an executioner who keeps demanding victims for his gallows.

The other older work in the program is “Next Door,” a 1990 student film from Pete Docter, of Pixar. “Next Door” anticipates the curmudgeon-moppet bonding of Docter’s great Oscar-winning film “Up” (2009), but it also finds this artist — known for his computer animation — working in a delightful hand-drawn style, with characters whose eyebrows are as expressive as their smiles.

On the other hand, former Disney animator Glen Keane’s draftsmanship, and a score rather recognizably by John Williams, don’t do enough to distinguish “Dear Basketball,” a mawkish ode to hoop dreams created and narrated by Kobe Bryant, from the bland uplift of a Nike commercial. In voice-over, Bryant serenades his love of the sport from his time as a small boy, watching videos of the Los Angeles Lakers, to his retirement from that team in 2016.

Swedish artist Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s prizewinning “The Burden,” set in a grim, anthropomorphized Nordic city filled with singing fish, simian telemarketers and tap-dancing mice, has been growing on me since it showed at Film Forum this fall. But for an embittered worldview, I prefer “Unsatisfying,” by the French animation company Parallel Studio. The shortest, and by far the funniest, film in this program, it sets a compendium of petty everyday frustrations to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

“Animation Show of Shows” is not rated. Most shorts in English; one in Swedish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes.