WonderCon 2017: The 18th Annual Animation Show of Shows, by David Bax

The Animation Show of Shows is an annual collection of notable recent short animated films from around the world. As my headline suggests, it’s been around for eighteen years and can be seen this week in theaters in Cary, NC, Toronto, Sandpoint, ID, Omaha and Littleton, CO. This year’s selection is top-notch, ranging from familiar studio fare from the likes of Pixar to an elemental and touching student film from Russia.

There’s no unifying theme to the presentation but certain throughlines do appear. For instance, the bittersweet “Stems,” about the short lifespan of stop motion characters, the heartwarming “Pearl,” the story of a girl’s life from the point of view of a car and Zakouska, a silly animal chase film, all heavily incorporate themes of the production of music. Meanwhile, topicality prevails in others, like the slight animation of a This American Life story that incorporates Hillary Clinton’s position as a role model for young girls and the bitingly funny satire “Exploozy,” which looks at the way social media can provide wannabe artists gratification despite a lack of creativity, talent or even effort. “Every idea is a good idea,” the narrator smilingly yet ominously intones.

One of the collection’s most compelling attributes is its international flavor. There’s the aforementioned Russian film (“About a Mother”), a Latvian entry (“Waiting for the New Year”) and, among the best, an abstract Finnish piece called “Boygen.” The title comes from a Finnish term for an intangible hindrance and the film depicts this with objects that continuously shift position, rising, falling and encircling to orchestral strains.

At the end, the collection concludes with selections of more mature themes, after a break to allow parents to escort their children from the room if they so choose. One, titled “Blue,” and marked by the same shade as the Derek Jarman film of the same name, barely qualifies for the warning, though it does depict an invasive surgery and, for a brief flash, a penis. More disturbing (and more interesting) is “Corpus,” following a Rube Goldberg contraption that animates photorealistic pieces of a dismembered human body. The best of the last chunk of films, though, is “Man O Man,” a claymation tale setting in a symmetrical, Kubrickian urban hellscape in which a man’s inner monster is let loose after he attends a “primal therapy” session, all set to an incredible electric guitar score by Terence Dunn.

Even the low points aren’t that low. The visually flat “Shift,” for instance, still finds room for an interesting look at the arrogance of unwanted charity. The true worst of the bunch, though, is a Walt Disney entry that draws a reductive, false dichotomy between a person’s head and heart, making the assumption that one is boring and one is fun while contributing to the ongoing and increasingly tiresome artistic depiction of office work as draining and Kafkaesque. )Do all people who don’t work in offices assume everyone who does hates it? Some of us like our offices.) More positive standouts include the Voltaire quoting “Last Summer in the Garden” and the absolute highlight, “Afternoon Class,” which starts as a goofy but spot on look at how hard it can be to keep your eyes open during a post-lunch lecture and morphs into a thrilling look at the terror of oncoming adulthood and the unstoppable passage of time. Like its counterparts in the Animation Show of Shows, it’s a testament to the expansive capabilities of the form.

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