LAAF 2012 Spotlights Animated Excellence
An impressively diverse slate of new films, revivals, and shorts highlighted the third annual Los Angeles Animation Festival (LAAF), celebrating a medium as vast and complex as all cinema. Unfolding over the course of a long, unseasonably warm March weekend, the festival treated attendees to an impressive array of animation styles and storytelling perspectives. I attended much of the fifth and final day of LAAF at the Regent Showcase theater, an Art Deco landmark in the Hasidic district of La Brea Avenue, absorbing a programming slate of superlative and cutting edge work by animators and filmmakers from across the globe.
The day began with a special presentation of shorts from the California Institute of the Arts – better known as CalArts, the higher-learning institution founded by Walt Disney specifically for students of visual, literary, and other creative media. The thesis films of recent graduates from the school’s animation program were interspersed with early work from several famous alumni, a Who’s Who of the talent involved in the ascendance of Pixar as well as the animated TV renaissance of the 1990s. Cartoon Network stalwarts like Craig McCracken (The Powerpuff Girls) and Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter’s Laboratory) were already honing their bright ideas twenty years ago, albeit with more of the undergrad’s anarchic sensibility – McCracken’s cute little crime-fighters were originally dubbed the “Whoopass Girls.” This also applies, surprisingly, to Pixar chief John Lasseter’s “Lady and the Lamp,” showing an early fascination with the private lives of inanimate objects. But instead of toys that live to be loved by children or cars that, um, talk, we see a lamp that gets drunk, destroys an entire roomful of its fellow light fixtures, and suffers no negative consequences.
In their collegiate cheekiness, most of the alumni shorts have a tacit commercial understanding, a willingness to tell a clever little story or deliver some cool-looking visuals just for the fun of it. Conversely, the majority of recent CalArts graduates’ shorts are either wildly experimental or achingly personal endeavors, often gritty and dark like Moises Jimenez’s False Notes or Jason Carpenter’s The Renter. They are refreshing diversions from the traditional approaches and frankly vanilla demographics of the older pupils. When they do seek the comfort of formula, it’s usually the ever-popular “Boy Thing tries hard to impress Girl Thing.” But if I had to choose the most promising marriage of emotional resonance and audience-friendly craft, it would be Shion Takeuchi’s When the Time is Ripe, a story of self-acceptance acted out by an anthropomorphized pear in a family of Jewish T-bone steaks. To explain it any further would spoil its charmingly offbeat pleasures. You can watch it here:
When The Time Is Ripe from Shion Takeuchi on Vimeo.
The following three features on the festival schedule progressively blurred the line between innocence and maturity. First, the gleefully rude Shrek was featured on the 10th anniversary of its inaugural Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Since diluted by copycats and its own sequels that focus more on referential gags rather than story-based ones, the original Shrek is likely better than you remember; co-writers Joe Stillman and Roger Schulman were also on hand to discuss how the project began as a straightforward drama(!) and grew more satiric throughout its long development process. It was followed by 2012 Oscar nominee A Cat in Paris, branded as a puzzling choice by the Academy only by those who have not seen it and been impressed by how it works both as a comic caper and an unexpectedly moody child-in-peril thriller.
Of course, neither of these movies comes close to matching the solemnity of Grave of the Fireflies, a landmark film in the history of the Japanese animation concern Studio Ghibli that doubles as one of the bleakest – and most humanistic – war films ever made. Presented on a rare, beautiful 35mm print, Grave was introduced by festival artistic director Sean Lennon (yes, that Lennon), who noted that it was one of the first animated films to challenge the medium’s perceived generation gap. A heart-wrenching chronicle of two Japanese orphans struggling to survive in the waning months of World War II, it’s a mature story understood and appreciated by adults and children alike. That was a theme that echoed throughout the entire weekend (which also featured screenings of Akira and The Iron Giant), making it clear that even in its relative infancy, LAAF is serving not only as a celebration of animation, but also as a dynamic statement on everything that animation can be.