Animation Spotlight: Sundance Film Review

Mixed bag of animated shorts was unusually focused on death and the universe's indifference to man.  

PARK CITY — Entrancing technique met a mixed bag of content in this year's Animation Spotlight, where everything from scratchy pen-and-ink to polished CG was represented -- with the notable absence of any wholly abstract shorts.

Though most of the films exhibited some quirk factor, only one really went for laughs. Stephen P. Neary's Dr. Breakfast offered a hungry spirit on a global all-you-can-eat rampage, but that main theme was less charming than what the ghost left behind: A catatonic man being tended to by two talking deer.

On the whole, though, even cute-looking films pondered death and alienation, be it via a big-brother-devouring whale (Belly, by Julia Pott) or by, for no discernible reason, using computer-animated robots as analogs for rioting black youths in Kibwe Tavares's Robots of Brixton. In the haunting, gorgeously simple 663114, Isamu Hirabayashi follows a cicada on a long, repetitive climb up a tree (where he intends to shed his hard shell) only to surprise the viewer with an oblique invocation of last year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

In Night Hunter, Stacey Steers creates a moody, nocturnal world out of cut-up old engravings, then pulls images of Lillian Gish out of a half-dozen silent features and weaves her into a story full of moths, earthworms and baby-sized bird eggs. With surreal touches everywhere, it's reminiscent of a Max Ernst collage.

The U.S./South Korean 38-39°C, by Kangmin Kim, was a burst of visual vibrancy on a sometimes dour (or at least grungy) program. Combining illustrated paper cut-outs with diorama-like stages, it revolved around a bathhouse customer who lets the water get dangerously hot. Though only eight minutes long, it made time for a bizarre but beautiful effects scene in which viewers suspected the protagonist was dying, only to realize -- well, whatever it is that happens, he doesn't die.

If many of these films harbored a fixation on mortality, Don Hertzfeldt's It's Such a Beautiful Day was the 2001 of the topic, sending its Everyman hero off into the void with sadness and wonder. The end of a shorts trilogy about Bill, who faces a terminal brain disorder (the first chapter won a Sundance jury award in 2007), it is a far cry from the riotously funny Rejected, which showed here over a decade abo. Mixing the simple, hand-drawn characters familiar from his early work with live-action split-screens, irregular iris frames, and dazzling bits of experimental optical effects, the film lived up to its two predecessors. While most shorts are lucky ever to see a big screen outside of festivals, Hertzfeldt is currently touring this trilogy to cities across the country.