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'Toon up

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Animator Don Hertzfeldt's best-known characters come in two shapes. One is a fluffy, falsetto-voiced cloud with stick arms and legs and a black triangle for its merry little mouth. The other, more conventionally humanoid, has an eggplant-like body with stick arms and legs, a head like a pea, and big round eyes settled in a nest of lines connoting exhaustion and misery.

In The Animation Show, the feature-length anthology Hertzfeldt curated with Mike Judge, both of Hertzfeldt's crudely drawn archetypes inevitably come in for abuse. In the program's introduction, the two Clouds serving as hosts helpfully define "animation" -- just before they begin to helplessly mutate into monsters, one of them wailing, "Damn the illusion of movement!" In Hertzfeldt's cruelly perfect Billy's Balloon, a weary-eyed child is pummeled by his helium-filled toy. And in his satirical demi-classic Rejected, Hertzfeldt rains upon Clouds and Eggplants alike an escalating series of traumas and dismemberments, culminating in the annihilation of their very world.

Hertzfeldt specializes in wicked Grand Guignol. But his are hardly the only cartoons here that seize the medium's endless opportunities for transmogrification. In Mount Head, a miser's bald dome becomes a public park. Ident finds disgruntled clay men preparing faces for the faces that they meet, usually without much success. In L'course a l'abîme, pretty, painterly images of affluent country people at play subtly dovetail into a ring-dance of skeletons underneath a murder of crows and the tracers of brightly bursting artillery shells.

Malleability inspires violence in a way that -- even in the age of digital manipulation of photographed reality -- seems especially suited to animators dramatizing essential absurdities. In Strange Invaders, parental jitters implode on the arrival of a baby-like alien, who turns a neat home into a calamitous playpen. Bill Plympton's ballistic parable Parking sends an anally retentive lot attendant to war with a blade of grass. And Vincent, Tim Burton's witty short featuring narration by Vincent Price, sets a little boy's reality at odds with his image of himself. The transformation in the solemn, gothically gorgeous The Cathedral, meanwhile, finds a mythic dimension in the human struggle.

Das Rad wittily inverts the formula: The protagonists remain the same while everything around them changes. Judge's own sketches, including Huh? and Office Space, likewise revel in the stasis of unalterable characters. And then there's an excerpt from Mars and Beyond, the late Disney animator Ward Kimball's modernist, creepily assured 1957 speculation about weird life forms on the Red Planet

Roughly half these shorts have been part of other recent traveling animation collections in the past couple years, and several were Oscar nominees -- a lineup that left me wondering why Hertzfeldt and Beavis and Butthead progenitor Judge didn't go for more underground fare. But that's my only complaint about this solid anthology.

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