[28 February 2005]
Animation has been around in one form or another since the dawn of motion pictures. But where live-action cinema quickly became a vehicle for every conceivable type of narrative and expression, animation was effectively castigated to the kid’s table from a very early point. To this day, despite occasional efforts to create animation for a more discerning adult audience, the cartoon medium is for kids.
Spike & Mike’s Animation Festival is famously dedicated to juvenilia, but of a decidedly more risqué type than Pokemon. While most people outgrow Mad magazine, the young journeyman animators featured on Spike & Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation: Caught in the Act! have, with a few exceptions, yet to outgrow a fascination with the satirical possibilities of putting wholesome cartoon characters through their R- and X-rated paces. It gets tiresome, but it’s not really disheartening: even Mike Judge, who has elevated understated animated satire to new heights with King of the Hill, got his start with the gleefully stupid “Frog Baseball.”
So you have cartoons with names like “Love That Pussy,” “My First Boner,” and “Rez-Erection,” all fairly self-explanatory. One step up from the sex humor, you have the somewhat more nuanced (but not by much) observational satire of “Refrigerator Art: My Family” and “Beat The Brat,” both of which refute the clichés of the established nuclear family by introducing elements of depravity such as spousal abuse and emotional blackmail.
From here, you move on to the gleeful misanthropy of “Hippie Juice,” featuring the indelible image of a wrathful Uncle Sam feeding a hippie into an enormous food processor attached to his giant SUV. “The Treasure of the Salted Tadpole” is probably my favorite short on the disc, and it’s also the only cartoon created from claymation. It’s the charming story of a pirate digging for treasure at the bottom of the ocean, and the playful shark who gets in the way.
But if the majority of these skits exploit pre-digital technologies, there are also reminders that the advent of the personal computer, along with the Internet, has radically altered the balance of power in the animation world. Previously, cartoon shorts like these were the unmistakable product of small teams or individuals with limited resources, and their work reflected the shoestring nature of their projects. But with the advent of Flash animation and applications like Avid, those same bedroom animators are capable of creating featurettes that could easily stand next to half the shows on the Cartoon Network in terms of quality. So, next to 30-second homegrown gags like “Schindler’s Fist,” you have the elaborate adventures of the Happy Tree Friends (represented here by “Milkin’ It”). These cute and lovable cartoon animals just happen to get graphically eviscerated with clockwork regularity. In the case of “Milkin’ It”, two sinister squirrels who try to kidnap a cow just happen to end up impaled by pine trees and dismembered—which is something at which you will probably laugh despite yourself.
It’s slightly odd to see such unabashedly twisted cartoons presented with the same attention to craft and quality you would expect from The Powerpuff Girls—and that dichotomy is the point. The Happy Tree Friends have become something of a brand name on the Internet, with their own DVD compilations and merchandise. But while “Milkin’ It” was funny, I can’t really imagine sitting through more than a handful of Happy Tree Friends episodes before the joke got very old.
The longest feature here (but still only around five minutes long), “Dr. Tran” is also the slickest. It’s still essentially one joke, though: Dr. Tran is a five-year-old Asian kid who doesn’t want to be an action movie star even though the voice-over keeps telling him he is. It’s a bit repetitive but it betrays a slightly more developed sense of humor than the majority of shorts included here, less dependent on scatology or innuendo (although there is no shortage of that).
Festivals like Spike & Mike’s offer one of the few outlets for independent animators to showcase their product and gain wider recognition. The tradition will undoubtedly continue, even if the vast majority of the material remains monotonously puerile. It will be interesting, however, to see what kind of impact the Internet has on the field of animation in the years to come. It used to be that up-and-comers like Judge, Jon Kricfalusi (Ren & Stimpy), and Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) had to work their way up from the button rung of the ladder into a notoriously cloistered industry, either through festivals like Spike & Mike’s or circuitous backdoor methods (such as Stone & Parker’s infamous Christmas video featuring the first quite primitive South Park episode - they hardly expected to get a TV deal based on something that was essentially a lark, and for their troubles they won the resentment of luckless veterans such as Kricfalusi).
But now anyone with a computer can put up his own cartoons and become an overnight success, to the point where the appearance of the immensely popular Happy Tree Friends on this disc seems an anomaly, almost like they’re slumming. When everyone has broadband and can download homemade cartoons like Happy Tree Friends at his or her leisure, what place will anthologists like Spike & Mike have in this brave new world?