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DVD Review: The Animation Show Volume 3

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Blame Walt Disney.

It's not necessarily just his fault — he certainly wasn't the only creative force churning out kids' cartoons in the early part of the 20th century — but as his media empire grew ever more vast over the course of his lifetime, cartoons became firmly entrenched in the pop-culture psyche as a vehicle suitable only for certain kinds of storytelling.

Animation today is still locked into that rut — an animated film is usually for kids, sometimes for families, which just means that grown-ups don't want to stab out their own eyes while they watch it. It's probably going to feature a tightly-plotted story with some sort of moral compass, a heavy dose of humor, and perhaps some songs. More often than not, talking animals are involved.

If you want to experience animation removed from that narrow mainstream definition — work that doesn't necessarily aim at kids, or serve up jokes, or even tell much of a story — you have to turn to projects like The Animation Show. Launched in 2003 by Mike Judge (Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill, Office Space) and Don Hertzfeldt (Rejected, Everything Will Be OK), The Animation Show is a semi-annual animation film festival, featuring short films collected together for both screenings nationwide and DVD release. It's probably the preeminent national outlet for the work of student, indie, and avant-garde animators. The most recent DVD release, The Animation Show Volume 3, is a challenging collection of edgy animated shorts that represents where the art form is today, and where it could be going tomorrow.

Being able to pick up a DVD collection of these shorts is by itself some kind of minor miracle; to be able to relax in the comfort of your own home and experience the leading edge in creativity through animation is kind of amazing. This is the stuff that even ten years ago you'd be lucky to see once a year at your nearest art house theater–and that's only if you lived in a major metropolitan area that could support such a venue. Today, you're just an Amazon order away from this material.

So it's easier than ever to get quality indie animation into the hands of its fans…and yet, it's important to note that The Animation Show isn't for everybody. The mix of material on Volume 3 represents a wide swath of styles, technologies, and tones. There's light comedy in "Astronauts," about two spacefaring guys experiencing trouble sharing the same rocketship. There's Looney Tunes-style slapstick in "Versus," where two warring factions of samurai attempt to destroy each other's fortresses across a wide gulf, with madcap results.

And then there's "Rabbit," which easily made the biggest impact on me, in a haunting and slightly disturbed way. Stylistically, it takes its cue from those old "See Dick Run" type of early-reader books, with a watercolor painted feel and simple designs. All the objects in the film are labelled with their name ("Tree," "Rabbit," "Bed") just like in books for early readers.

The "story" such as it is travels down a truly twisted path, involving a small genie that is able to transform insects into diamonds and two nasty children who pay a steep price for their greed. There's an intriguing friction between the visual cues and style, and the behaviors in the story; I wouldn't call it thought-provoking necessarily since it's not as though it encourages the viewer to reconsider the role of diamonds and genies in the lives of children, but it's the kind of art that lingers in the mind long after its completion.

You've got shorts like those, with easily defined characters and stories, and then you have material like "Collision," which is more of a visual poem than anything else; it's simply brightly-colored stars and triangles collapsing into one another and expanding outward in an endless pattern. In total, it's a wide survey of what's happening in animation today on perhaps the art form's most creative level–amongst independent artists and students.

There's a nice selection of extras on The Animation Show Volume 3, including animator interviews and early animatic drafts of some of the shorts. That's one advantage the DVD release of The Animation Show will always have over the theater presentation–when you watch The Animation Show on DVD, you get the extras too.

In its best moments, The Animation Show's third collection invites the viewer to abandon preconceived notions about what animated films can do and provides some challenging entertainment. You have to be up for that challenge; it's not easy at times, as these are not always meant to be simple accessible films. Yet if being challenged by your entertainment sounds like your idea of a good time, The Animation Show Volume 3 is a rewarding experience, and one small step toward reclaiming the art of animation from those damn talking animals.

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