Most cartoon fans should be able to find something to enjoy in the 2022 edition of “The Animation Show of Shows,” a 90-minute survey of recent animated short movies. Unfortunately, the juxtaposition of certain shorts also sometimes detracts from their standout qualities.
Most of the ten included short films are technically accomplished and formally adventurous enough to warrant viewers’ attention. Some shorts, like the stick figure coming-of-age drama “Aurora,” also look corny or trite when compared with others. The piecemeal nature of this sort of omnibus also does a particular disservice to experimental or non-narrative shorts, like the playful and impossible-to-synopsize hand-drawn short “Zoizoglyphe.”
The first hour of this year’s “Animation Show of Shows” focuses on new shorts from the past two-plus years, since the series was put on hiatus during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The last half hour of this program highlights a newly restored short from 1987: “The Man Who Planted Trees,” a gorgeous but emotionally stillborn Canadian short about Elzéard Bouffier, a fictional shepherd who, at the turn of the 20th century, plants thousands of trees with no professional tools or institutional help.
This short, narrated by Christopher Plummer, also confirms the generous thematic clothesline that supports the preceding shorts, most of which concern the range and diversity of human coping strategies and living experiences. Some shorts resemble joyful and vibrant sketch-like doodles while others entice viewers with self-serious fables or whimsical vignettes.
Narrative-based shorts tend to be the least compelling parts of “The Animation Show of Shows” because their stories seem underwhelming when compared to their respective visual styles and innovations. In “The Man Who Planted Trees,” Plummer’s stately narration feels insubstantial and distracting when compared to the short’s gorgeous impressionistic visual tableaux, animated by Frederic Back, and recently restored by the Academy Film Archive and color-corrected by Picture Shop Post’s Senior Colorist Kris Santa Cruz.
Back’s short now looks great, but so does “Yes-People,” a cute but shallow Icelandic slice-of-life comedy about an apartment building’s residents, whose lives intersect only when they’re either too noisy or too physically close to each other.
“Yes-People” includes some amusing character-driven gags, like when a depressed housewife looks hopefully at her husband when they overhear their next-door neighbors having passionate sex; the sad hausfrau’s partner quickly turns up his radio’s volume to drown out the ambient noise, as if to change the subject. “Yes-People” also stands out thanks to writer-director Gísli Darri Halldórsson’s impressive use of 3D animation, which he uses to draw viewers’ attention to the varying textures and surfaces of his characters’ apartments.
“Ties,” a magically realistic Russian short, also stands out, mostly for writer-director-illustrator Dina Velikovskaya’s exciting use of stop-motion animation. In this dialogue-free fairy tale, an unnamed young woman moves out of her parents’ home to a different country, taking with her a supernaturally long string that literally ties together everything from her parents’ furniture to their clothes and physical bodies. It’s a short and sweet exhibition of Velikovskaya’s dynamic animation style, even if its basic story never matches its unique design.
On the other hand, some experimental shorts will probably test viewers’ patience given their lack of plot or sensible characterizations. The visually dazzling “Beyond Noh” may be the best short among the ten, but this stop-motion animated piece — which overlays and compares thousands of masks from various backgrounds and cultures — also doesn’t have a coherent story to tell.
Likewise, the French short “Zoizoglyphe” follows a mysterious proliferation of bird-like musical notes, which pile on and frequently overlap each other. These delicate-looking figures make noise, repeat their mechanical movements, and then chaotically mutate into new and increasingly weird shapes. “Zoizoglyphe” compares favorably with “Average Happiness,” a riotous, dialogue-free German short that literally animates various figures and data points from statistical charts and graphs that measure things like mortality rates and energy usage. Neither of these shorts have a tidy story to tell, but they’re still immediately overwhelming because of their gorgeous psychedelic imagery.
The only downside to discovering avant garde shorts like “Zoizoglyphe” and “Average Happiness” in a showcase like “The Animation Show of Shows” is that the other shorts are either too similar or not close enough in style to appear complementary. It’s also frustrating to see so much priority given to “The Man Who Planted Trees,” which takes up a third of the program and effectively serves as its emotional climax, since it’s presented after the nine other shorts, all of which are much shorter.
Positioning the vibrant “Beyond Noh” at the top of this survey makes sense given that it’s not even four minutes long, but doesn’t really favor its musicians or animators. The series’ programmers deserve credit anyway for highlighting such a remarkable piece, along with a few other highlights. Still, it’s too bad that this year’s “Animation Show of Shows” says more about its curators’ overwhelming options than its featured animators’ accomplishments.
“22nd Annual Animation Show of Shows” opens in NYC Dec. 30 at the Quad.