These days animation is often used for the purpose of making movies feel more realistic, sometimes to such an extent that we don't recognize it even when it's right in front of us. But animation qua animation is still a rapidly evolving art form, capable of increasingly sophisticated and intense storytelling that can transport us into far-flung imaginary worlds.
That kind of animation is the focus of Festimation, a festival of new works curated by the University of Montana Media Arts Department, and hosted at the Roxy Theater. It features four Thursdays of bleeding-edge animation—a total of 64 animated films, chosen from hundreds of entries from over 70 countries, ranging in genre from documentary to experimental.
It isn't all home runs, but even the weakest films offer some variety between the gems. Here we review some of the best.
Johnny Express (Oct. 9)
Easily the most entertaining film in the bunch, Korean director Kyungmin Woo's crowd-pleaser clocks in at just over five minutes. Johnny, an interstellar delivery guy, attempts to transport a microscopic package to a very tiny planet. The results are hilarious without being overly predictable. The style of Johnny Express will be familiar to any fan of classic Pixar, with colors and textures so rich and vibrant, I had to stop myself from licking the screen.
M.O.M. (Oct. 16)
My personal favorite, with a run-time of just over two and a half minutes, Italian director Margherita Premuroso's M.O.M. is the story of a lonely old fisherman whose line hooks a note that reads: "Where is my son?" The watercolor-esque atmosphere paints just the right mood over line work reminiscent of art found in Studio Ghibli films like Spirited Away. I can't say much more without giving up the game, but the ending took my breath away.
Ziegenort (Oct. 9)
A truly haunting masterpiece of 2D hand-drawn animation. Polish director Popakul Tomasz's unapologetically Eastern European flavor of magical realism features a boy with the head of a fish learning the ropes from his fisherman father. Moody and surreal, Ziegenort makes a seamless motion from gritty realism to a shot of the sun rising directly out of the ocean, just beyond the fisherboy's reach. At 19 minutes Ziegenort is the longest of the shorts, and not to be missed by anyone who appreciates Kafka and Ajvaz.
Symphony (Oct. 9)
This gorgeous abstract work by American director Erick Oh is a five minute race through an amorphous environment of inky organisms somewhere between the wax blobs of a lava lamp and Spiderman's Venom outfit. The camera follows a single inchoate blot zooming through a deterministic world. The blot seems to be the only entity with any spark of intentionality, and the rest of the world seems desperate to re-assimilate it. I found myself oddly invested in this formless hero, whose story reminds me of Shel Silverstein for reasons I still can't put my finger on.
Love on a Street and Spit in the Sky (Oct. 16)
Notable for their innovation more than their storytelling power, these two shorts integrate animation with the real world. Both have a hand-held feel as filmmakers step back to shoot not only the animation, but the medium on which the animation is played. In the case of Love on a Street, characters are projected and tracked throughout the city: on the sides of buildings, train tracks and underpass pylons. In Spit in the Sky the frame reveals the view screen as part of an installation space. As the animation plays, its character's actions manipulate the real world outside of the screen's edge.
Big Bag (Oct. 9)
A wildly imaginative critique of modern society animated with a hand-drawn feel. Spanish director Ricardo Martin Coloma immerses us in an airborne puppet universe where everyone and everything soars from moment to moment on clockwork strings. The device isn't the most original, but Coloma's particular spin, discreet use of color and dizzying mastery of animated camera motion makes this one of the freshest and most enjoyable pieces in the festival.
Festimation screens films each Thursday in October at the Roxy starting Oct. 9. Visit theroxytheater.org for the full schedule.