Would it mean much to complain that a movie anthology seemed rather too Canadian for its own good? Probably not, and the selections incorporated in "The 17th International Tourne'e of Animation," the holiday attraction at the Biograph, remain international in origin despite being packaged as a tribute to animated filmmaking from a single production source, the National Film Board of Canada. So much emigre' talent has been welcomed to the Film Board (originally organized as a World War II documentary production center by a Scotsman, John Grierson) that this sampling -- a two-hour program of 21 shorts made over the past 20 years or so -- ends up showcasing animators from Yugoslavia, Holland, Denmark and India as well as native Americans.
Nevertheless, the package is weakened by a pervasive institutional tone, a kind of studied, tepid whimsicality that suggests a certain uniformity of temperament and outlook within the Film Board's animation fraternity. Despite the sprinkling of international influences, this collection has an inbred, hermetic consistency that saps your curiosity and good will over the long haul. By turns mildly facetious or earnest, these films lack the range of impulses and styles that customarily give an unpredictable, eclectic, sublime-to-the-outrageous vitality to the "Tourne'e" anthologies.
To some extent the sameness that weighs down installment No. 17 may be ascribed to the public service nature of several Film Board commissions. For example, there's nothing particularly fresh or impressive in the segments illustrating television spots devoted to encouraging proper nutrition and fire prevention. A more extended work on the fire prevention theme, the 1975 "Hot Stuff" by Don Arioli and Zlatko Grgic, a famous recruit from the animation studio at Zagreb, reveals wilder imaginative tendencies, especially in its demonic depiction of the ostensible scourge itself, fire, as an intriguing ravenous character, far more interesting graphically than the cartoon humans it victimizes. Still, the film as a whole isn't sufficiently inspired to transcend its commission, and it ends on a dumbly facetious note that seems to diminish the work as either animated fantasy or social warning.
On the other hand, the wittiest single entry in the collection, the satiric short "Instant French," belongs to a TV public service cycle called "Vignettes," and consists of 60-second films about Canadian culture and history. The examples here suggest that the format of "Vignettes" lends itself to humorous and inventive variation. There's a fluidly revealing "Vignette" devoted to facial portraiture, with the lines of one face constantly dissolving and reforming into another configuration, and a headlong cartoon "Vignette" about the delivery of the first piano to frontier Winnipeg.
The most distinctive home-grown talent nurtured by the Film Board, Norman McLaren, is represented not by one of his swift, rhythmic, painted abstractions but by a strained "pixillation" short, "Opening Speech," made for a 1961 film festival, in which he tries to control a fidgety microphone. An intended enhancement, three sequences about the working methods of different animators represented in the collection, tends to backfire by slowing the pace and emphasizing the already stuffy insularity of the Film Board operation. The sequence celebrating Carolyn Leaf, best known for the work also included here, "The Street," an animated version of Mordecai Richler's memoir of a Jewish boyhood in Montreal, seems to provide the key to one's reservations about the droopiness of the collection.
Leaf uses an oil-painting-on-glass technique that results in a curiously smeary graphic style as one drawing "wipes" into the next. It's a heavy, oppressive look, even when the wipes achieve startling expressive changes. However, the animator's testament proves significantly more discouraging than her style. "I work in a dark, dark room without windows all day," Leaf remarks. "It's calm and I love it."
If anything, the work reflects this isolation to a fault. It's difficult to believe that Leaf's vision would be irreparably harmed if she occasionally looked out a window or had her monkish concentration disrupted by noisy, colorful bursts of stimulation from outside. Though no doubt an extreme case, Carolyn Leaf also seems to represent the Film Board approach taken to a logical, arty conclusion: Too many of the films in "The 17th Tourne'e" give you the feeling they were made by animators who love working undisturbed in dark, dark, windowless cells.