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DVD Review: NFB's Animation Express

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DVD Review: NFB's Animation Express
Animation Express, a compilation of animations selected and presented by the National Film Board of Canada, offers a vivid and diverse tapestry of Canadian artistry, humor, sentiment, history, even nationalism. Although both English and French language versions are available, most of the animations - despite broad differences in style and tone - need no words to convey their message, for the characters and environments practically vibrate with life and personality.

A few of the more symbolic pieces fell flat for me; they demonstrated innovation in style and technique, but lacked in any sense of personality, story, or overall message. Several pieces stood out fantastically, though, and ran the gamut from wondrously detailed 3D to simplistic-yet-heartwarming 2D with a distinct voice and uniquely capricious style. Here are a few of my favorites:

Madame Tutli-Putli:

This charming piece is definitely the best of the bunch, with a claymation-mimicking 3D style whose eerily realistic textures and unnervingly lifelike eyes contribute to an atmosphere of curious, whimsical humor mingled with dramatic tension, all painted in broad strokes without a single word spoken. Delightful oddity quickly descends into an eerily surreal nightmare whose ending, while depressing, offers a warm spark of hope and uplifts just in time.

Hungu:

Definitely a symbolic piece, one that struck a bit of a chord with me due to the primitive people portrayed and my own tribal heritage. The overall feel is aboriginal, but there are hints of the First Nations (known to us Americans as Native Americans) in the characters portrayed, and the story carries strong mythical symbolism from creation folklore - including a character easily compared to the 'earth mother' archetype, and depiction of the cyclical nature of life. The animation is striking, 2D using only black on white with limited shading - yet done with such artistry that it conveys realistic depth and beautiful effects on a plane that borders on three-dimensional, proving that sometimes simplicity is complex enough on its own.

The Spine:

A visual feast of surreal 3D imagery, vivid and entrancing and just a bit creepy. The story is one of codependency, and at times the delivery ventures into areas that make me feel like I'm riding someone else's acid flashback - but overall the message comes through strongly enough, creating sympathetic characters that rely heavily on visual exaggeration to convey their inner thoughts. All of it is rendered with lovely textures and effects, and a continuous atmosphere of humor and self-deprecation keeps the heart-warming vignette from growing too heavy even while it spins out its tale of giving hope, giving love, and giving sacrifice.

The Man Who Slept:

I'm not sure why this strange little love story captivated me. The simplistic pencil-sketch style of animation is deceptive, for the detailed artistry involved in every frame of animation creates fluid, almost dreamlike motion. The story is one of a woman so ignored by her husband that he's portrayed as always sleeping while she suffers from a need to live, love, and be loved. Eventually she finds her love, flees from him while he dreams of her, and then - after her husband fades from her life - finds joy with her new man.

Sleeping Betty:

Modern conventions meet fairy-tale imagery in a hilarious 2D hybrid that had me sputtering "What the hell?" every few minutes, in between hysterical laughter. The art style reminds me of woodcut illustrations in very old fairy tale books, and definitely adds to the delightful humor of this one.

Come Again in Spring:

Simple, but with a great deal to reflect on. The story of a man who challenges and cheats death over and over again by demonstrating that even in advancing age, he remembers the joy of life and is still hale and hearty enough to keep living. There's a bit of Rumplestiltskin in there, as he answers the reaper's questions and thwarts him. The faded watercolor art style is eminently suited to the overall sense of nostalgia.

Although I enjoyed many of the others, I'd be rambling for pages if I detailed them all. I will say that the second disc (for the DVD version) stood out more strongly in terms of theme, style, and entertainment value, but the entire package is definitely worth seeing. Available on both DVD and Blu-Ray, you can order your own copy for home use for US $39.95 (Blu-Ray) or US $34.95 (DVD 2-disc edition).

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