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Fresh from the Festivals: August 2008's Reviews

Andrew Farago reviews five short films: The Breakout by Arnaud Demuynck, John and Karen by Matthew Walker, The White Wolf by Pierre-Luc Granjon, The Bridge by Vincent Bierrewaerts and A Mouse's Tale by Benjamin Renner.

Within the world of animation, most experimentation occurs within short-format productions, whether they are high-budgeted commercials, low-budgeted independent shorts or something in between. The growing number of short film festivals around the world attests to the vitality of these works, but there are few other venues for their exhibition, nor are they often reviewed. As a result, distribution tends to be difficult and irregular. On a regular basis, Animation World Magazine will highlight some of the most interesting of these films.

This month's edition of "FFF" focuses on the five finalists for the 2008 Cartoon d'Or award. The winner will be announced during Cartoon Forum in Ludwigsburg, Germany on Thursday, September 18. The prestigious Cartoon d'Or is the only European prize specific to animated short films.

This month:

The Breakout (L'Evasion) (2007), 9:00, directed by Arnaud Demuynck (France). Co-directors: Gilles Cuvelier (France), Gabriel Jacquel (France). Contact: Les Films du Nord, Arnaud Demuynck, 27 avenue Jean Lebas, 59100 Roubaix, France [T] + 33 (0)3 20 11 11 30 / + 33 (0)3 20 11 11 31 [W] www.euroanima.net [E] ademuynck@euroanima.net

John and Karen (2007), 3:30, directed by Matthew Walker (England). Contact: Sarah Cox, Arthur Cox Ltd. [T] +44 (0)1179539788 [F] +44 (0)01179539788 [W] www.worldofarthurcox.com [E] sarah@worldofarthurcox.com

The White Wolf (Le Loup Blanc) (2006), 8:30, directed by Pierre-Luc Granjon (France). Contact: Sacrebleu Productions, 23 rue Bisson 75020 Paris, France [T] +33 1 42 25 30 27 / +33 1 53 75 25 91 [E] contact@sacrebleuprod.com

The Bridge (Le Pont) (2008), 13:00, directed by Vincent Bierrewaerts (Belgium). Contact: Les Films du Nord, Arnaud Demuynck, 27 avenue Jean Lebas, 59100 Roubaix, France [T] + 33 (0)3 20 11 11 30 + 33 (0)3 20 11 11 31 [W] www.euroanima.net [E] ademuynck@euroanima.net

A Mouse's Tale (La Queue de la Souris) (2008), 4:09, directed by Benjamin Renner (France). Contact: La Poudrière, école du film d'animation, 12 rue Jean Bertin, 26000 Valence, France [T] +33 4 75 82 08 08 [F] +33 4 75 82 08 07 [E] contact@poudriere.eu

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Stark black-and-white images enhance The Breakout’s bleak yet hopeful exploration of life and death. © Les Films du Nord. 

The Breakout (L'Evasion)

Arnaud Demuynck's The Breakout puts the viewer on edge from the outset, with dark foreboding objects quickly darting across the screen as eerie violin music sets the tone. The story becomes darker still when we discover that the protagonist is in prison, and things only get worse from there as his cellmate is tortured to death.

After a period of uncertainty, the prisoner is removed from his cell and marched toward an unknown but assuredly unpleasant fate, so he seizes upon his one, final opportunity for escape and attempts to secure his freedom. He doesn't get far, however, and soon finds himself held at gunpoint in a large, open prison yard, with no possible hope for survival. Rather than admit defeat, the prisoner starts to dance -- slow and ritualistic at first, gradually becoming more free and expressive as the accompanying music becomes more discordant and cacophonous. Although his body has been imprisoned and he has no possibility of survival, his spirit remains unbroken, and cannot be contained.

Demuynck drew inspiration for this film from tales of death and bereavement, and the emotions that accompany them: depression, abandonment, revolt and, ultimately, coming to terms with the fact that life goes on for those left in its wake. The dramatic tension is heightened by his decision to use a stark black-and-white contrast and the shrill, edgy soundtrack. The use of traditional ink-on-paper animation with a simple animation program was clearly the right choice for this subject matter, which is intended to make the viewer uncomfortable and ill at ease.

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Decidedly not an action film, John And Karen presents a wry take on domesticity. © Arthur Cox Ltd. 

John and Karen

Matthew Walker's one-sentence description of John and Karen sums up his entire film very succinctly and accurately: "John the polar bear apologises to Karen the penguin after an argument."

And that's precisely what happens in this film. John, a large polar bear, arrives at Karen's house to apologize for his boorish behavior at a recent party. Given the vast number of ways in which a polar bear can ruin a social gathering, it's to Walker's credit that John's embarrassment stems from a series of social blunders, as opposed to, say, devouring party guests or mauling the caterers. John sheepishly apologizes for his unwarranted criticism of Karen's swimming prowess and hunting skills, sheepishly admitting to her, "Your fishing skills are excellent." By story's end, John and Karen are back on friendly terms, and the tension between them has been resolved.

This is not an action film by any means. The most exciting sequences, visually, involve John dipping a cookie into his tea, and Karen waddling from one part of the living room to another. But, obviously, action isn't the purpose of this short. It's dialogue-driven: very dry, very sedate, and very British. The humor is incredibly subtle, and when I saw this film earlier this summer, as part of Mike Judge's Animation Show, audiences weren't quite sure what to make of it.

Whether the film produces laughter or not, it's undeniably charming. The character designs are pitch perfect, from the imposing-yet-incredibly-self-conscious John to the petite-yet-clearly- dominant Karen. The animation is uncomplicated, done with Flash, Photoshop and After Effects, and the result is a simple, unassuming and altogether beautiful little story.

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Childen and adults see things differently in Pierre Luc-Granjon's haunting tale of lost innocence, The White Wolf. © Sacre Bleu Productions. 

The White Wolf (Le Loup Blanc)

Children live in one world, and adults live in another. The things that fascinate a child may perplex or horrify an adult, and vice versa. This fundamental lesson is at the core of Pierre Luc-Granjon's short film The White Wolf.

Two brothers in rural France are enjoying an afternoon's playtime. They dress as soldiers and wage combat throughout the fields surrounding their village until another pastime captures their attention, and they chase a small rabbit through the forest. Their pursuit ends in a cave, where the pair encounter a large, white wolf. The boys, far less frightened than adults would be in the same situation, quietly exit the cave, making note of its location.

That evening, their father presents the family with a small rabbit (perhaps the same one the boys had encountered earlier) for dinner. His wife happily accepts this gift, taking the rabbit into the backyard, where she beheads it. The boys return to the wolf's cave in the evening and present the disembodied rabbit head to the white wolf, who devours it whole, cementing his friendship with the boys. The older brother climbs aboard the wolf's back and rides it throughout the village, having formed a lasting bond with his new companion. The boy even dreams of further adventures with the wolf, and everything is right with the world... until the next day.

The boys' father returns from the hunt with the white wolf in tow, and, as with the rabbit, he presents it to his grateful wife. The boys watch, unsure of what they can do or say, and continue to watch as their mother beheads their newfound friend. In the evening, the boys transport the wolf's head back to its cave for a proper burial, and the wolf's kin reveal themselves and serenade their fallen comrade.

Le Loup Blanc is a haunting, beautiful film. The artwork was "drawn on paper, shot on glass," according to Granjon's brief description of his creative process, and the artwork has a hand-rendered, organic quality that makes the story feel all the more authentic and poignant as a result. Granjon's tale covers a lot of ground emotionally, and perfectly captures both that innocent time in a child's life when he can wholeheartedly believe in the fantastic, and, sadly, a time when that belief can be shattered by a well-intentioned authority figure.

[Reviewer's Note: Due to time restrictions, I was only able to view the original French version of this film, without a translation or subtitles. Although the storytelling was clear enough for me to follow the basic plot, I may have glossed over some elements of the film that were only explicitly stated in the film's dialogue. I'd also like to apologize to my high school French teacher for ever suggesting that I'd probably never find any practical application for her lessons after junior year. Je suis désolé.]

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The Bridge uses stop-motion puppetry to explore a father-son relationship and the end of childhood. © Les Films du Nord. 

The Bridge (Le Pont)

As with The White Wolf, Vincent Bierrewaerts's film The Bridge deals with the end of childhood and the loss of innocence. The film opens with scenes of a father and son leading an idyllic, pastoral existence. They work together, they play together, and they enjoy a happy, peaceful life on their farm -- a farm that happens to be atop a precarious plateau, and is completely isolated from the world around it. The only connection to the rest of the world is a broken bridge fragment, which has apparently been in disrepair for quite some time.

As the boy grows older, he becomes more and more curious about the outside world. Fleeting glimpses of the city far below cause him to become restless, troubling his father, who tries in vain to distract his son. One evening, a fireworks display from below catches the boy's attention, and he resolves to leave behind his life on the mountain top. His father disapproves, and in the middle of a heated argument between the two, the boy shoves his father, who falls, hits his head, and dies.

After he buries his father, the boy sets about dismantling his home and using the raw materials to repair the bridge that once connected the mountain to the rest of the world. When the boy makes his way down to modern civilization, he discovers that the fireworks he'd seen were actually discharges from weapons that the people below had used against each other, and only burned-out shells of buildings remain, with no sign of life whatsoever. Shortly after completing his journey to the outside world, his makeshift bridge collapses, leaving him alone in the world, staring into the distance at his former home.

Bleak ending aside, Bierrewaerts's stop-motion puppetry is engaging and captivating throughout his 13-minute film. The character designs are appealing, and the eventual rift between father and son is all the more tragic after we've found ourselves emotionally invested in their relationship. Milking the cows, gathering eggs and picking vegetables may seem like mundane tasks, but Bierrewaert realizes that a few well-placed character-building scenes like these at the start of the film are necessary if we're to get the full impact of that swift punch to the gut that he's building to at film's end.

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Stunning art design is only one of the assets of A Mouse's Tale, a universal fable that dates back to Aesop. © La Poudrière School. 

A Mouse's Tale (La Queue de la Souris)

A Mouse's Tale may be the most straightforward tale in this year's roster of Cartoon d'Or nominees. A cat (although in this case, it's a lion) captures a mouse, and the mouse promises the cat a grand reward in exchange for its life. It's a universal concept, one that dates back to Aesop, and as a result, it's a very versatile and adaptable tale.

Rather than simply letting the mouse run free to do his bidding, the lion ensnares the mouse with a thread, then sends the mouse out into the world to bring him a meal worthy of his stature. The mouse presents the lion with increasingly larger and more elaborate dining options, although nothing seems to satisfy the lion's arbitrary and capricious whims. (In rapid succession, the lion refuses a cherry, a frog, a large bird, a hedgehog, a rabbit, an owl, a squirrel and a snake, each captured at increasing risk to the mouse's own personal safety.)

After the lion refuses his last attempt at gift-giving, the exasperated mouse unleashes a tirade that, not surprisingly, infuriates his captor. The lion prepares to devour the mouse, but, unbeknownst to him, the mouse has laid a trap and has hopelessly entangled the lion in the very string that he used to imprison the mouse. The mouse then bites through the string, picks up the discarded cherry, and heads home, leaving the lion alone to ponder his next business deal with small, woodland creatures.

The film is visually stunning, with expressive silhouettes against simple, bold backgrounds. The menacing black lion confronting a tiny white mouse against a blood-red backdrop is one of several enduring images from this four-minute short, whose art direction is the simplest, yet most powerful, of the five nominees. The film was created as director Benjamin Renner's graduate project at La Poudrière, animation film-directing school, and I'm sure I speak for everyone who's seen this film when I express a strong interest in whatever post-grad project he helms next.

Andrew Farago is the gallery manager and curator of San Francisco's The Chronicles of William Bazillion.

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