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This year's Festival of Animation is bold and triumphant

FESTIVAL OF ANIMATION '90

At the Somerville Theatre.

Plays through October 26.

By DEBBY LEVINSON

THE ANNUAL FESTIVAL OF Animation is back at the Somerville Theatre, this time featuring seventeen animated films varying in length from two to 18 minutes. Two of this year's selections are award winners -- the Soviet Union's All Alone With Nature received the Special Jury Prize at Annecy, and Great Britain's The Hill Farm garnered the Gran Prix from Annecy, a British Academy Award, a Best Animation award from Bulgaria, and a Most Entertaining Film award from Munich.

The Hill Farm's laurels are richly deserved. At 18 minutes in length, it is by far the longest film of the evening, but it is well-paced and never boring. It is also something of a technical triumph -- it was painstakingly composed over three years using the traditional animation technique of painting cels, or individual celluloid frames.

The story of the day-to-day life of a farming couple and their interactions with nature, their animals, and an irresponsible group of tourists, The Hill Farm is pastoral, even soothing. The animation itself is simple: the people are hugely over-proportioned, the sheep are essentially white rectangles with stick-legs and black, triangular heads. Yet the parts combine to a sophisticated whole, making The Hill Farm one of the most satisfying and entertaining animated films I have ever seen.

Fans of computer animation will be pleased to see film from Pacific Data Images (Locomotion), from France's Images Fant^ome (Sio Benbor, Jr.), and from Pixar, whose Tin Toy won the 1988 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. The Pixar offering, Knickknack, is a remarkable achievement. While computer animation may never approach the subtlety imparted by the human hand, it has been refined to an amazing level, and the animation in Knickknack is in no way inferior to that created by the human artist. Featuring a bubbly score by Bobby McFerrin, Knickknack details the travails of a snowman trapped in a little glass dome who wants to join his fellow knickknacks outside (including a buxom blond souvenir from Miami).

Looked at solely as a technical achievement, Knickknack is outstanding. Shadows and images are realistically represented, and the animation is free of the static, one-dimensional quality that affects poorly done computer animation. It's equally outstanding taken as it is -- a cartoon, and a very funny one at that.

The shortest film of the collection is perhaps its most enchanting one. Palm Springs clocks in at a mere 1:54, but its briefness is made up for by its delightfulness. The happy-go-lucky dinosaur protagonist is, well, cute, and his miniscule caveman antagonist appropriately ant-like and full of himself. Palm Springs' director, Pete Docter, is only 22 (he was 19 when he made Winter, which played at last year's festival), and he will doubtless produce many more charming films in the years to come.

Some of the films do not fare as well as others. I was confused by Plaid Baker, a too-surreal claymation effort, and I was bored by In and Out, which began with a clever premise but degenerated into a tired chronicle of a man's life from birth to death. Feet of Song's dancing images were mesmerizing for a while, but they were frankly hard on my eyes. On the whole, however, the Festival of Animation is an absolute triumph, a bold collage of the newest and most original short subjects around.