'The 21st Annual Animation Show of Shows': Film Review

Animation Show of Shows - Publicity Still - H 2019
The Animation Show of Shows, Inc.
A stylistically varied collection with nary a cutesy-pandering 'toon in the bunch.

Ron Diamond's annual showcase for fresh animation talent is a holiday gift for followers of the field.

The discerning scout of animation talent Ron Diamond, curator of annual anthologies that have included scores of films that went on to Oscar nominations — and, more important, showcased mini-masterpieces the Academy overlooked, like Niki Lindroth von Bahr's The Burden — returns this month for his 21st installment, whose entries hail exclusively from Europe, Russia and Israel. Asia, Africa and the Americas will just have to work harder to pass muster with Diamond next year: This time, he selected a mere eight works (two short docs on filmmakers round out the program); and while casual 'toon consumers would surely find a couple of them charming, this is a program aimed at connoisseurs, not kids.

That's clear from the first entry, a sterile-looking clean-line film puzzlingly titled Kids. Michael Frei and Mario von Rickenbach begin with two identical, generic figures walking out onto a blank white field, but soon are corralling giant numbers of them in an allegory of...what? Sometimes aggressive, sometimes lemming-like, the faceless men may represent a conflict between herd behavior and individuality; or the film could be an attempt to confront the ethics behind bringing new lives into a world that will quickly kill them. It's certainly the most pointedly ambiguous film here.

The most easily comprehended entries lie at opposite ends of filmmaking technology. In Natalia Mirzoyan's Five Minutes to Sea, rendered in what looks to be a series of quick ink-and-brush drawings, a child must endure an eternal-feeling wait before she's allowed to return to her swimming. As the seconds tick by, her boredom transforms sunbathers around her into characters from a dream. In The Fox and the Bird, the set's most traditionally charming film, Sam and Fred Guillaume create a vividly realistic forest setting for characters whose 3D modeling gives them the compelling personalities a dialogue-free short demands.

Dialogue is scarce or absent in all but one of these films, in fact. Geraldine Charpentier's Recit de Soi is the exception: Adding narration to images that transmit the irrepressible energy of a tomboy youth, the director recalls the disappointment she felt when, at puberty, she had to stop going shirtless on the playground and try to find women's clothes she could stand to wear. As autobiographical images give way to adaptations of scenes from Celine Sciamma's lovely 2011 feature Tomboy, the filmmaker explains how, despite the many uncertainties surrounding surgical transition and societal norms, just seeing gender nonconformity onscreen was a life changer.

Two entries from Israel (the two films followed by docs interviewing their makers) use anthropomorphized animals to very different ends. Gil Alkabetz's Rubicon starts with the old riddle about ferrying a wolf, a sheep and a cabbage across a river, then visualizes an answer of nearly incomprehensible complexity — bending the rules of space and time when a straightforward solution was evident to any disinterested observer. It's perfectly enjoyable on its own, even for those who don't realize it's an "oh, of course" metaphor for the Middle East peace process. Meaning is more ambiguous in Hounds, which nevertheless lands its emotional punch solidly. Here, Amit Cohen and Ido Shapira use stark, charcoal-y black-and-white compositions to watch as a domesticated, human-like dog hears the call of the wild for the first time.

Finally, fathers and daughters are at the heart of both Joanna Lurie's Le Jour Extraordinaire and Daria Kashcheeva's Daughter. The first, stylized like a children's picture book, takes a hypnotically long path to revealing its story to us, watching as a mixed bunch of townsfolk take a fleet of sailboats into the night carrying precious cargo. The latter offers a sadly more universal (if elliptically told) tale of filial resentment and regret. Visually arresting from its first frames, it uses puppetry in ways many viewers will not have experienced before. Kashcheeva photographs her densely textured creations with an extremely shallow depth of field, hand-paints her puppet's expressions (prompting amazed curiosity at how the effect was created) and moves her camera continuously through stop-motion scenes. Even if there's a distracting moment or two in her simulation of live-action handheld photography, it's little wonder that this rich vision was just put on the shortlist for Oscar consideration.

Production company: Acme Filmworks
Directors: Michael Frei, Mario von Rickenbach, Gil Alkabetz, Marta Trela, Natalia Mirzoyan, Géraldine Charpentier, Joanna Lurie, Amit Cohen & Ido Shapira, Sam & Fred Guillaume, Daria Kashcheeva
Producer: Ron Diamond

88 minutes