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Budget Low, Cel High

A Love Yarn: Wallace meets a potential mate in Nick Park's "A Close Shave," the newest episode in the Wallace and Gromit series.

A new edition of Spike & Mike shows off the best of recent independent animated shorts

By Richard von Busack

THE BACKBONE of Spike & Mike's '96 Festival of Animation is imported work. Nick Park of Aardman Animations weighs in with a new Wallace and Gromit adventure, "A Close Shave," which recently won an Oscar for best animated short. Park is a student of silent comedy as well as of claymation. Gromit the Dog--not only mute but mouthless--is still more eloquent than most actors. Wallace, who ends up courting in A Close Shave, finds himself at a Pinteresque loss of words when faced with an equally shy yarn-shop proprietress. Strangely, this quiet moment precedes some 007-sized action. While cleaning windows at an old maid's yarn shop, the introverted Wallace and his dog, Gromit, encounter a sinister bulldog that turns out to be a veritable Schwarzenegger. The finale in the skies above the village where Wallace and Gromit live brings this half-hour romp to a stirring conclusion.

"Wat's Pig," also from Aardman (Peter Lord directed), is a Prince and the Pauper tale with a collectivist ending--the useless king and the hard-working peasant (twins separated at birth) find their lots in life colliding when the neighboring king picks a fight. Similar but more grisly radicalism is evident in the German "Ah Pook Is Here" (by Philip Hunt), a very serious short film based on a William S. Burroughs poem. The old man's dry-as-dust cadences invoke the names of meso-American gods of destruction (embodied onscreen as Fat Man, Little Boy and other early nukes); Ah Pook, a god of death, is himself presented as a flying meat puppet made of raw chicken. One of Burroughs' notions is that America is not a new continent sullied by Europeans, but an old one, old with evil and soaked in spilled blood. All that is new, in his opinion, is the character of the newest inhabitants, and their devotion to their god Control.

Caroline Cruikshank's "Three After Thoughts" is a beautiful work of such spareness that it is completely in tune with the simplicity of the Erik Satie composition on the soundtrack. What links the three parts is a Siamese cat's hunt for live food. Even though the cat is barely delineated--it's a stick figure with scribbled-in color--the animal stirs you, not by its catly caricature but by its disturbingly catlike behavior.

There's not a lot of percentage in independent animation, and so it's easy to forgive the clunkers in the series, even "Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me," which looks like a calling-card from an animator seeking work at Disney. Similarly, since the tone in this collection is higher than it is for Spike & Mike's Sick and Twisted Animation, it's also easy to let pass Doug Aberle's "Fluffy," which goes in for the dogshit joke that turns up with such frequency in the Spike & Mike selection process. Still, when "A Close Shave" combines superb technique with nuances of mood, it is possible to believe that animation is one of the princes of all arts.

Spike & Mike's '96 Festival of Animation (Unrated; 90 min) opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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