"The 20th International Tournee of Animation," which opens today at the Biograph, is a delightful and often daffy collection of films you're not likely to see any other way, not only because many of them are from overseas, but because the only shorts the American film industry understands are Hollywood previews and popcorn testimonials. The Tournee, compiling the best and frequently prize-winning animated films from nine countries, lets you see what you're missing. The 18 films in the 90-minute program range from two to 10 minutes, but there are months of labor behind each entry.
The California Raisins have popularized Will Vinton's Claymation technique, but you won't find it done any better than in Russian Garri Bardin's "Break," in which two lumbering boxers flail away at each other, forcing incredible distentions, at which point the ring doctor steps in with his satchel and pulls out -- spare clay! A little patching up and the fight goes on to its hilarious, yet surprisingly poignant, conclusion. Csaba Varga's "Augusta Feeds Her Child," also clay animation, brings us the latest surrealistic adventures of Hungary's favorite (and the world's messiest) cartoon character.
Animation is possibility, and techniques include everything from the clay basics and inked-cell cartoons to the latest in computer-generated graphics. This year there are some real charmers from the computer side, which usually tends to be technically flashy but emotionally cold. Best are the two offerings from California's Pixar (John Lasseter and William Reeves, formerly with Lucasfilm). "Luxo Jr." is about a daddy desk lamp and his bouncy lamplet's adventures with a bouncing ball, while "Red's Dream" charts the daydreams of a unicycle abandoned in the discount section of a high-tech bicycle shop. Not only are both shorts poignant, but they also manage to infuse technology with some much-needed humor.
Jane Aaron's "Set in Motion" is a triumph of patience and stop-action photography: She places brightly colored strips over objects and people alike, shoots and moves the strips minutely, shoots and moves again, etc. It looks as if the strips are in perpetual motion, swimming across, under, around and through things. It's both astonishing and funny.
Joanna Quinn's "Girls Night Out" is a visually and aurally raucous night on the town for a group of Cockney women who leave their television-dulled husbands at home and head for release at the local male strip club. Another colorful British entry is Susan Young's "Carnival," an impressionistic rendering of a Third World street festival.
"The Frog, the Dog and the Devil" is a wry and visually resplendent New Zealand meld of Ichabod Crane and the Wild, Wild West that ranks up there with the best of classic Disney animation. "Plus One, Minus One," from Italy's Guido Manuli, attempts a surrealistic "It's a Wonderful Life" but ends up more caustic than bittersweet, while Terry Wozniak's "Garbage In, Garbage Out" is an old idea -- the cartoon character running amok -- given a none-too-clever twist.
And Bob Kurtz's "Drawing on My Mind" works off a George Carlin monologue, which means it's tied to the specifics of his not-for-kids language. It's the only inappropriate-for-kids entry, though adults are probably more likely to enjoy the Tournee's sophisticated edges than kids. Not that they'd have any problem with different languages: Except for the credits, the language most evident in this Tournee is the universal one of visual humor.
As usual in the world of animation, there are several punch-line films, setups that can either be enchanting, like Zoltan Lehotay's "Success," or preachy, like Ferenc Rofusz's "Gravity." Interestingly, both are from Hungary and could be said to make the same point from opposite angles. Also in this category: Juliet Stroud's "Snookles," an uninspired variation on "Bambi Meets Godzilla."
Consistently funny are Bill Plympton's "Your Face," in which a crooned tune is accompanied by the singer's ever-changing (and frequently grotesque) face; Bruno Bozzetto's charming "Baeus," in which an adventurous cockroach falls madly in love with a neglected housewife and learns the power of magic, but not before a series of miscues; and Nicole Van Goethem's Oscar-winning "A Greek Tragedy," in which a trio of statues get tired of holding up the crumbling remains of the Acropolis.
Unless you're a filmmaker or an inveterate number-counter, "Academy Leader Variations" may be a good time to take a popcorn break. This 5 1/2-minute compilation brings together the work of 20 animators from four countries to enliven the standard film countdown for synchronicity between film and sound track (you know, the "6 ... 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... beep" that you're not supposed to see if the projectionist is careful). Some of these variations are hilarious, some clever, some technically astounding; this won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but unless you like getting dizzy, it's still a good time to get some popcorn.
Don't miss anything else, though. This 20th Tournee is a delight.
The 20th International Tournee of Animation, opening today at the Biograph, is unrated.