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Animated Antics

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Fiddling Around: A country musician confronts Satan himself in Mike Johnson's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."

Spike and Mike's newest features visual and narrative advances

By Richard von Busack

AFTER ONE too many "Sick and Twisted" animation fests from Spike and Mike, it's refreshing to see this mostly fine 20th-anniversary collection of more than a dozen shorts. These cartoons bring back visual and narrative qualities that have been missing in the infantile selections of adult cartoons in the past. Of the four best shorts, two are local work. The Oscar-nominated "Canhead," by San Francisco's Timothy Hittle, is all about a little figure's war with a shambling, mechanical giant. What truly beautiful and elaborate technique Hittle has--the man is obviously a master at clay animation. He must have sweated blood trying to get the figures to look as if they really were alive.

Also from San Francisco is Mike Johnson's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." The music is by Les Claypool's prank band, Festus Clamrod and the El Sobrante Twangers, doing their version of the Charlie Daniels chestnut. Claypool takes the song as a hillbilly joke, and Johnson keeps the punch of the story (Satan gets into a fiddling contest with a country musician) while joshing around in the margins. I loved the trio of critical chickens nodding among themselves over the contest like studious jazz fans.

Anthony Hodgson's witty clay-animated (barely) "Hilary" is about a depressed father telling his mute child the world's least-comforting bedtime story--a fantastic tale of desolation, repetition, aimless striving and dashed hopes, murmured in a shrugging Pinteresque tone of ridiculously total defeat. Lastly, "Mons the Cat" is a Norwegian tale of a prodigious cat that devours everything from a farmer and his wife to the King to the Sun. "Mons the Cat" has the utterly inexplicable quality and weird resonance of the strangest of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales. Watching it, you know, almost instinctively, that there's more to the story than meets the eye. There's some sort of meaning that has to be puzzled out. The question is, as always, "but what?"

This collection comes at an interesting time, when animation is pulled by the extremes of Disney and Beavis and Butt-head. Questing young cartoonists searching for their place between corporate slickness and total nihilism--I like Beavis and Butt-head, but they deny everything, even animation--might want to take the route these four major talents have taken. They've found depth and quality in exploring strange, harsh myths and folk tales, retelling them in a postmodern, post-Disney style.

Spike and Mike's 1997 Festival of Animation plays May 23­June 12 at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the May 22-28, 1997 issue of Metro

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