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[whitespace] 'When the Day Breaks'
Pigging Out: Mrs. Pig consoles herself with a meal after witnessing an accident in 'When the Day Breaks.'

Animal Cels

Tragic 'Panther' highlights animated shorts in 'Spike and Mike' compilation

By Richard von Busack

The latest edition of Spike and Mike's Classic Festival of Animation is their best to date. The biggest laugh you can get these days seems to come from mistreating an animal, as seen in some of the really low-humored points of the Twisted Animation Festivals over the years. What's surprising in this year's fest, then, is not just the usual hilarity but also the surprising compassion for animals manifested in the spirit of this selection of a dozen and a half cartoons.

Sounds drippy, I know, but there's nothing cheaply sentimental about the best cartoon in the festival, "Panther," by Vuk Jevremovic. It is a thoroughly serious, painstakingly animated and bottomlessly tragic view of a large cat in a small cage. Sure enough the famous poem by Rilke was cited at the end; I looked it up later:

    His vision, from the constantly passing bars
    has grown so weary that it cannot hold
    anything else. It seems to him there are
    a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

    --Rainer Marie Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

Jevremovic scores the work with angry funk and acid-rock guitar music, implying not just the panther's suffering but also his rage. The images are thinly painted and repainted on canvas: a black panther alive and staring. Sometimes he's full-faced and flat-eyed as he looks at the pale distorted heads that peer at him through the bars. Sometimes, he fades in a scribble of paint into the skinned carrion he will be one day, propped up for autopsy. Always, there is the endless forward and backward motion of pacing. In his mind's eye, he sees images of a tree in an African plain.

These visions of the panther's home are matched in some flashing shots of a long-lost farm that a dying rooster recalls as its life flashes before its eyes. (Of course, the last thing it remembers is its egg.) The moment comes from the Oscar-nominated (and it was robbed) "When the Day Breaks," by Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis of Canada.

Not since Robert Crumb have funny animals been used so piercingly to act out a story of urban angst. The tale of a brush with death is told without dialogue. In a gray, gray city, a middle-aged chicken is hit by a car as it crosses the road. Mrs. Pig, seeing the tragedy, goes home to her small apartment to fix herself a consoling bowl of potato peels and milk.

"Panther" is Rilke, but "When the Day Breaks" is more like one of Philip Larkin or Stevie Smith's poems, in which the weight of mortality is lightened by resignation to that painful, half-funny realization that even death can't bring majesty to a really insignificant life.

Also noteworthy is "One Day a Man Bought a House," which is a lovely absurdist piece of Norwegian claymation that progresses from slapstick cat-and-rat story to tender love story. "Mutt," by Kirby Atkins of the Will Vinton Studios, offers low-key delights about a stand-up comic dog. As the saying goes, what's surprising is not how well he performs, but that he can perform at all. Atkins makes it clear that the dog is a very ordinary comedian on what seems to be Tuesday night at the comedy club, underattended by an obstreperous, jaded crowd.

As yet more solace to hearts broken by "Panther" are two cartoons based on the Fleischer Brothers style of horror and jazzy comedy: The Muppetian "Graveyard Jamboree With Mysterious Moze," from a novelty tune once recorded by the Cheap Suit Serenaders (and once animated by the Fleischers), and "The Ghost of Steven Foster" made as a music video for the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

As the after-dinner mint, the festival serves up a reprise of last year's "Billy's Balloon," a vicious comic short that depends on the sort of violent humor you'd dread to analyze. I think this primitive cartoon is an answer to "Panther": the question "What kind of bastards would lock up a magnificent panther in a disgusting little cage?" is rejoined by "What can you expect but cruelty in a world in which even inanimate objects are scheming their revenge?"

In this case, a nice red balloon unexpectedly turns on its young master, an ugly walleyed toddler. The evil balloon even (I choked with laughter) paused for a moment to look innocent while a few adults walked by to smile at the kid and his plaything.

Spike and Mike's Classic Festival of Animation (Unrated), a collection of animated shorts, opens Friday (May 19) at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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Web extra to the May 18-24, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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