The ICA does right by the animation gods and presents this gem of a program, 11 award-winners and audience favorites selected from the 2013 Ottawa International Animation Film Festival. Aside from the yearly Oscar-nod package, it’s not easy to see animated shorts in a theater, and never ones this delightfully oddball. But animation remains an important source of innovation in filmmaking, as it has been since the medium’s inception. It’s all there in the festival’s introductory cartoon: Two grotesque desert bums (straight out of MTV’s “Liquid Television”) find a magic mushroom that sends them tripping into space, equating their boundless animated forms with a kind of higher consciousness. Yeah, it gets a little weird. In fact, you should probably just leave the kids home altogether. Let ’em watch a “Spongebob” or something.
You won’t find any Pixar brand-building here. You won’t catch the latest installment of the tragic “Cute Squirrel vs. Global Warming” saga that precedes whatever ICE AGE we’re in now. What you will find is an exuberant mix of moods and methods, all originating from outside the U.S. The steep tonal shifts between shorts only illustrate the power and immediacy of the animation format. A hyperactive Japanese music video gives way to a stop-motion character study from the Netherlands. Ink blots come to life under a classical overture before a surreal nightmare literally sends you screaming into hell. There are wind-dependent societies and electric butt plugs, cute imaginary creatures and graphically personified snot. All in under 90 minutes. It’s a tough balance to strike, but you can thank the the friendly oddballs up in Canada for that. The OIAF has become the largest animation festival in North America. The quality and variety of the 11 shorts in this program prove why.
YOUKOSOBOKUDESU SELECTION: ‘NA NI NU NE NO NO’ (Japan, dir. Manabu Himeda)
The “Best of” program opens with this catchy little number, a hand-drawn musical in which “Nu” (the Japanese symbol that makes up the character’s head) can’t stop dancing. Through barely a wisp of a story, it combines comedy, grief, and a big wallop of Japanese wordplay. Not a word is spoken in English but the jovial spirit translates and sets a playful mood.
OH WILLY… (The Netherlands, dir. Emma de Swaef & Marc James)
Perhaps the finest narrative film of the bunch, and certainly the saddest, OH WILLY won Best Narrative Short at Ottawa. It’s easy to see why. Rendered in beautiful hand-made stop-motion that utilizes the felt, yarn, and fuzz you might remember from Wes Anderson’s FANTASTIC MR. FOX, this wordless wonder tells the deeply affecting story of a lonely overweight man who loses his mother and tries to adapt to a new life. A showcase for a painstaking animation process, the film nevertheless weaves together a complex storytelling tapestry. There’s a nudist colony, enigmatic flashbacks, dream sequences, an accidental death, and a care-giving Yeti. And yet it all makes a gorgeous kind of emotional sense. Not a dry eye in the house for this one.
WIND (Germany, dir. Robert Loebel)
Also containing no dialogue (notice a trend here?), WIND is probably the funniest selection, spinning a playful fable about a society that must deal with a constant howling wind–and does so rather well, thank you very much. It reminded me fondly of THE POINT, that great 70s animated movie made from Harry Nilsson’s tuneful ramblings. WIND’s crisp hand-drawn style, all straight lines and hard angles, marries look and theme so efficiently that it could only come from a German. The physical gags are very clever and out of the absurdity emerges a real political message–that society finds a way, even if it’s sideways.
PLUG & PLAY (Switzerland, dir. Michael Frei)
It’s easy to get lost with this one, an increasingly strange allegory for our plugged-in, binary lifestyle. Black-and-white pod people (with electrical plugs in place of heads) walk around aimlessly, struggling to say what they really feel while two human hands turn a switch on and off. Stay with it and you’ll get to see the anthropoids gleefully stick their head-plugs up each other’s butts. Dense, but memorable.
VIRTUOSO VIRTUAL (Germany, dir. Thomas Stellmach & Maya Oschmann)
Closer to a segment from FANTASIA than its Best Experimental/Abstract Animation award from OIAF might suggest, VIRTUOSO VIRTUAL is nonetheless the most purely beautiful short in the program. Under a stirring overture from Handel’s opera The Alchemist, a swath of watery black ink dances across the screen, creating its own live form with the ebb and flow of the music. It’s visually striking, but what’s more impressive is how that little inkblot starts to develop a personality.
PALMIPEDARIUM (France, dir. Jeremy Clapin)
What begins as an impressionistic coming-of-age story becomes a childhood exercise in magical realism. A farm boy with an affinity for ducks hates that his stern father takes him hunting. Then a mysterious duck-billed creature appears, but is it real or imaginary? The film’s subject matter and storybook look borrow heavily from the works of Chris van Allsburg and Maurice Sendak (seriously, Where the Wild Things Are is all over this one), but it’s all the better for it.
TWO WEEKS – TWO MINUTES (Canada, dir. Judith Poirier)
This dadaist assemblage of typefaces and cliched graphic design elements recalls the work of Warhol and the found-footage films of the ’60s. The most impenetrable film of the lot, it seems to have been included in this series because of its origins: Artist Poirier printed images simultaneously on paper and film stock, resulting in this noisy and disorienting slideshow/meta-commentary. Not necessarily a nut that needs cracking, but still achieves a cool effect.
OHAYO CAROTENE (Japan, dir. Saki Iyori)
The series’ second Japanese music clip is even goofier than the first. I was a sucker for this one from the start because the cute little pop song that leads the film prominently features glockenspiel. Add to that the Crayola colors, the backgrounds made of crumpled construction paper, and the loose and stretchy character design with biiig round mouths that just can’t help but sing along to the (instrumental) tune, and you’ve got a mad two-minute sugar rush of music and movement.
LONELY BONES (France/Netherlands, dir. Rosto)
Surreal, hallucinatory and madly inventive, this makes David Lynch look like Jim Henson. LONELY BONES would have been my favorite short of the night had it not scared the crap out of me and everyone around me. This is the stuff nightmares are made of. Or it may just be a total nightmare. It seems to be a Faustian parable, at least. A terrified man must return a briefcase to the depths, but in exchange for what? To send away the marauding ghouls with burlap-sack faces? It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on, but is it ever effective. Rosto achieves so many neat effects with this short–live-action mixed with animation, shape-shifting demons, a noir cityscape that literally drips with evil–that you’ll need to keep an eye out for that name.
BLESS YOU (Canada, dir. David Barlow-Krelina)
First thing’s first: the dingy, urban, fish-eyed animation style here is really fun to look at because you’ve never seen anything like it before. Secondly, you have to admire an animated short that looks this detailed and amazing, and then spends the vast majority of its running time and kinetic energy on the set-up to a single, dumb joke. That the punchline totally works is all to its credit.
BUT MILK IS IMPORTANT (Norway, dir. Eirik Gronmo Bjornsen & Anna Mantzaris)
A recluse’s worst anxieties suddenly personify themselves as a giant fluffy creature that won’t leave the poor guy alone. Don’t worry, he’s here to help. The programmers deserve praise for placing this one last. Out of the 11 shorts, BUT MILK IS IMPORTANT does the most to demonstrate all that animation can do effectively. It creates a sympathetic character, shows us his world, challenges him dramatically, and leaves us feeling like we took part in the journey. There’s even–gasp!–some well-placed dialogue here, not to mention quirky claymation design, tight storytelling, and an uplifting resolution.
Best of the Ottawa International Animation Film Festival 2013
Saturday, January 18th & Sunday, January 19th, 3:00pm
Institute of Contemporary Art, Barbara Lee Theater (100 Northern Ave., Boston, MA 02210)
$5 members & students