Like it or not, Spike and Mike’s festival of animation, the annual anthology of cartoons that play human cruelty and decrepitude for locker-room laffs, is on animation’s cutting edge. Showcased amid the festival’s deliberate crudeness have been many future giants in the field, including Bill Plympton, Nick Park, Mike Judge, John Kricfalusi, and John Lasseter. The current edition contains two legendary proto–South Park shorts by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (The Spirit of Christmas, in which Jesus fights Santa, and the little-seen Frosty, in which Jesus trounces an evil snowman). Unfortunately, the distinction between genuine subversiveness and calculated disgust may not be readily apparent, just as in live action, where partisans of There’s Something About Mary and Happiness argue over which film is seminal and which merely, um, seminal. Moreover, the culture absorbs the shocking with alarming speed, as the careers of Judge, Kricfalusi, and Parker and Stone indicate. Which among this year’s crop are ‘toons for the ages?
One way to spot the artists is to note homages to avant-gardists past. Steve Margolis’s gutter meditation Animalistic Times evokes Bukowski, while Scott Roberts’s Monica Banana is both an obvious topical gag and an arcane parody of Warhol’s short film Mario Banana. Pete Metzger’s The Rise and Fall of Coco, the Junkie Pimp was reputedly inspired by Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” (This short and three others were unavailable for preview.) There’s evidence of higher thought even in the wall-to-wall violence of Mad Dog Films’ Boris the Dog, whose extravagant bloodletting is interrupted by its canine protagonist’s cosmic Nietzschean reverie, and Brian Bress’s Karate Dick Boys, a Freudian kung fu melee among naked cherubs, each with five lethal limbs. These shorts stand out from the more crassly exploitative ones, including the in-house efforts Sick and Twisted Special Games, a pointlessly politically incorrect poke at disabled athletes, and How To Get Pronged, a Plympton rip-off. It seems even the festival curators can’t tell the difference between transgression and trash.