'Animation Outlaws': Film Review

Animation Outlaws - Publicity still 2 - H 2020
Kat Alioshin
Entertaining but not very enlightening.

Kat Alioshin's doc celebrates the long-running showcase that introduced young Americans to future animation stars.

Affirming the legacy of two hustling entrepreneurs with an eye for talent and boundless energy for DIY marketing, Kat Alioshin's Animation Outlaws celebrates the colorful personalities known to fans only as Spike & Mike: two Californians who went from promoting rock shows to assembling a decades-long series of showcases for animated shorts. Filmmakers and enthusiasts ranging from Pixar auteurs to Weird Al testify to the influence of Craig "Spike" Decker and Mike Gribble, and countless clips demonstrate the diversity of the work they championed. But the lively and affectionate doc doesn't have a lot to tell those of us who attended these touring showcases, and those who never had the pleasure will get a pretty scattershot introduction here.

Alioshin used to work for the boys and has been a friend since the '80s (a relationship not disclosed in the film); her familiarity seems to lead her to assume we don't need much in the way of hard facts or chronology. It's possible Decker's surname isn't even mentioned in the film, and that the only mention of Gribble's is in a title card indicating the year he died. We learn nothing about either man's youth or any interest he might've had with cartoons; we know nothing of their personal lives, except as it pertains to socializing with filmmakers and fans.

Alioshin's connection to their operation evidently helped with securing some interviewees. But more relevant to the picture's appeal is her long post-Spike & Mike career working on animation teams, especially those of Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick. Midway through the doc, Alioshin offers a charming bit of her own stop-motion model work, depicting Spike as a cowboy strolling through lonely desert terrain; he and Mike spent decades on the road with "no real home," he says. But if that's what it took to never have to wake up early for a straight job...

Though it leaves much to be desired in its chronology of when the Spike & Mike tours started, and how they branched off into a crowd-pleasing "Sick and Twisted" series (which focused on gory, sexy or otherwise taboo-pushing work), the film does a fine job of showing how much these profitable tours meant to young filmmakers who otherwise had few outlets for their films. Monsters, Inc. director Pete Docter recalls being approached by the pair after a CalArts screening of student work. He'd expected never to show his short again, but Spike and Mike encouraged him to add color to the B&W film and get it in front of audiences. Docter's Pixar peer Andrew Stanton says the pair were "crucial to my career," recalling that it was at a Spike and Mike party that he first met John Lasseter.

Other artists associated with S&M are conspicuously absent. We see clips from work by Mike Judge and Bill Plympton, but Alioshin doesn't interview either of them. And there's no mention at all of Don Hertzfeldt, whose early masterpiece Rejected toured in the series' final years. (The film is vague about when and how the tours wound down, except to suggest that Gribble's death made them unsustainable.)

But those we see here have only good things to say. Joanna Priestley observes how much room the men made for female directors in their programming. Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park recalls getting his first autograph request at one of their shows. Multiple filmmakers say the pair brought them to Los Angeles, arranged for Oscar-qualifying theatrical runs and made them feel like winners whether the Academy did or not.

Audiences were winners too. During pre-internet years when TV offered very few chances to see non-corporate animated shorts, Spike & Mike brought work by unknown artists to college towns and made every screening feel like a circus. They were loud and uncouth and happy to offend if it sold some tickets. Who knows how much poorer the animation field would've been without their lowbrow showmanship.

Available Friday, July 17 on digital
Director-Producer: Kat Alioshin
Director of photography: Carl Miller
Editor: Erica Jordan
Composers: John Nau, Andrew Feltenstein

67 minutes