The world of contemporary animation has a scabrously witty new black-comedy star, and his name is Bill Plympton. In The 23rd International Tournee of Animation, which is now in the middle of a national release, Plympton’s short cartoons feature a pair of plumpish, ordinary-looking gentlemen who, while displaying no emotion, mutilate each other in the most creative ways possible. One fellow’s ears are stretched out, tied in knots, and then used as a slingshot so that a boulder can be whammed in his face. The other man gets his tongue tied around his head. Rocks are dragged through nostrils, and features get sliced, dissolved, and detonated — only to return to normal a moment later, in the tradition of demolition-derby cartoons like The Road Runner. Plympton, who has a queasy fascination with above-the-neck orifices, is Salvador Dali reborn as an ear, nose, and throat specialist. His segments, which have been excerpted from his upcoming feature film The Tune (and often seen on MTV), are the rollicking highlights of this year’s Tournee, a solid — if not quite as dazzling as usual — collection of 19 state-of-the-art cartoons from nine countries.
Now that the Cold War, it seems, has truly passed, an era of animation has ended along with it. The short works that peppered these festivals for nearly two decades were often anti-Communist parables — many of them from Czechoslovakia — in which an impish, put-upon little guy, made out of anything from clay to crayon, fought the forces of Big Brother. These little movies had a too-cute-for-comfort factor: They could make you feel that the animators saw the entire world as Sesame Street. Nevertheless, in their small, whimsical way, they did their bit to keep freedom alive.
Animators have now turned to a chillier subject: the beauties and foibles of life in a high-tech, image-driven world. This year’s Tournee includes such films as Daniel Suter’s ”Les Saisons Quatre à Quatre” (from Switzerland), in which Polaroid photos of a single tree record hundreds of different outdoor moods, and ”The Wrong Type” (by the U.K.’s Candy Guard), a hilarious little slice of employment hell in which a temp secretary attempts to survive in a modern office, despite being barely able to type her name. Chel White’s ”Photocopy Cha Cha” (from the U.S.), featuring rubbery, photocopied images of faces and assorted other body parts, is a reflection on the way technology alters our perceptions. These films, though often fascinating, lack the ingenuous magic that can make great animation a pure return to childhood. I preferred some of the sillier entries, such as David Fain’s ”Oral Hygiene” (also from the U.S.), in which a mouthy, skull-like head, to the tune of an absurdly zesty pseudo-Caribbean number, gleefully sings about the importance of proper tooth care.
The major disappointment of this show is Garri Bardin’s ”Grey Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood,” a scattershot 22-minute epic from the Soviet Union. From its barely coherent musical-comedy story line to its crude claymation, this yawner leaves you wondering whether those who awarded it a Grand Prize at the 1991 Annecy International Animated Film Festival weren’t simply trying to do their bit for glasnost. ”Grey Wolf” made me eager to see what animators from the Soviet republics will add to future Tournees, once they finally receive the economic resources — and not just the abstract promise — of freedom. B+