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Animation spans artistic spectrum

1992 Festival of Animation
At the Somerville Theatre.
Through April 23.

By Chris Roberge
Arts Editor

As Mellow Madness Promotion's annual animation festivals go, the 1992 installment is one of the strongest. For the second year in a row, all three shorts nominated for an Academy Award in the previous year -- "Blackfly," "Strings," and the winner, "Manipulation" -- are on the program. The balance between artistically impressive films and those which simply lunge at the audience's vulnerable, and for the most part wonderfully depraved, sense of humor is much better than it has been in recent years. And if nothing else, the 1992 Festival of Animation offers the uninitiated an opportunity to see for themselves "Deep Sympathy," quite possibly the crudest thing ever put on film.

Animation fans who saw the Canadian Animation Festival at the Coolidge Corner Theatre last fall were already exposed to two of the three Oscar nominees. Christopher Hinton's "Blackfly" is a fairly funny short drawn in the fast and rough style of such other Canadian films as "The Big Snit" and "Getting Started." "Blackfly" attempts very successfully to lend humorous images to a song written by a complaining worker who is struggling in the woods of Ontario to help build a power plant.

"Strings," by Wendy Tilby, is a much more visually pleasing, but less entertaining, short that acquires a uniquely fluid appearance from its method of creation, which involved painting images on panes of glass. In "Strings," a woman is shown preparing for a bath while her neighbor and his three friends practice with their string quartet. Tilby shifts the focus of her narrative back and forth between the two apartments with a hypnotically subtle rhythm, and her motif of strings -- strings on the musical instruments, strings on model ships in a bathtub, etc. -- does a good job of suggesting the unseen bonds that exist between the two neighbors.

"Manipulation," the winner of the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Subject, is clearly the best of the three nominees. In the film, an off-screen animator draws a rather plain character on his sketch pad. The animator then begins to toy with his creation by manipulating the character and his environment until the point at which the drawing begins to exercise some manipulations of its own. The subject of "Manipulation" is very reminiscent of that of the classic Daffy Duck short, "Duck Amuck," but while the earlier film was groundbreaking in its originality, "Manipulation" is fascinating in its bold innovation and style. The drawing tears through sheets of the pad in attempts to escape, wraps itself in paper in disgust, and by the short's end, has transformed itself into a fully three-dimensional object.

"Manipulation" may be the best of the three Oscar nominees, but surprisingly enough, it is actually not the best of the Festival. "Balloon," an English entry by Ken Lister, is an absolutely phenomenal piece and is one of the best shorts that I've seen in any animation festival. In "Balloon," a young girl dances with her red balloon through imagined fields of flowers while a lush score swells in the background. The balloon has an intelligence of its own and is the girl's close friend. A grotesque man appears and attempts to barter with the girl to get the balloon for himself. After tricking the heroine into giving him her friend, the man takes the balloon to his torture chamber -- a wickedly clever array of sharp knives, spinning propellers, and crushing gears, with an ample supply of high-powered fans to blow the captive balloons toward their violent deaths. "Balloon" is a wonderfully enthralling short with equal concentrations of a terrific storyline, a dark sense of humor, and mesmerizing visuals. The ambitious look of "Balloon" is composed of drawings, claymation, and miniatures, and is the most impressive in the program.

Other highlights include "Dinko's Day," a one-joke film that is nevertheless really funny; "Street Sweeper," a strikingly drawn story about a street sweeper whose powers are well beyond what his job calls for; "Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase," a whirlwind tour through some of art history's most famous moments;and "License to Kill," about a bear who can't wait to take advantage of the opening day of human-hunting season.

On Friday and Saturday nights, the Festival has a special midnight showing which contains all of the normal program with additional "Sick and Twisted" selections, some taken from last year's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation. These few cartoons make putting the additional effort into going to a midnight show well worthwhile. (And Mellow Madness Productions stocks the late show with free barf bags for every audience member.) "Lullaby," about a baby being stalked by a maniacal stuffed giraffe, is as beautifully rendered as it is viciously cruel. "Frog Baseball" is nothing short of hilarious as it shows how much fun anyone can have with a bat and a small animal. And "Deep Sympathy" is without a doubt one of the world's most disgusting creations. No trip to the 1992 Festival of Animation is complete without seeing these demented, disturbing, and delightful treats.