Using a wide variety of mediums and techniques, 'Animation Express' is a lengthy collection of wonderfully imaginative and highly original animated short films. The anthology, which was selected and compiled by the National Film Board of Canada, explores new techniques as it shows a terrific and diverse perception of our world. From eye-popping 3-D animation to traditional 2-D cels, each movie exhibits innovative and unique styles with strong, surrealistic symbolism. A few are more effective than others at delivering their ideas, but all are worthwhile to watch. In the end, the most expressive, insightful and artistic of the bunch demonstrate the potential of what can be accomplished with a great deal of imagination and a short amount of time.
In the traditional, hand-drawn cartoon fashion, four films in particular stand out not only for their immensely beautiful artwork, but also for the stories they share. Recalling the legend of the 16th-century cannibal of Scotland, 'The True Story of Sawney Beane' tells of a mother’s unconditional love for her son. Narrated in lyrical, poetic style, it is a strange yarn of a son’s desire for more than his parent’s life of honest toil, and could bizarrely work as a children’s rhyme. 'Come Again in Spring' is the whimsical story of an elderly man outwitting death. What makes this short so special and charming is the way in which the old man buys his time by recounting long-forgotten childhood memories. Both leave a lasting impression of originality and fascination.
'Sleeping Betty' is another wonderful and quirky short film that displays the nonsensical chaos of dreams, a gibberish mess of random images that the mind somehow turns into an organized storyline. Bringing to mind the classic fairytale of 'Sleeping Beauty,' this is an utterly hilarious and enchanting piece with several WTF! moments. 'Runaway' is another funny and eccentric short about a runaway train and an incompetent conductor told with a classical style. Without being too obvious, the segment works as an allegory of the social classes and the doom brought by on by self-interest.
As much as I enjoyed these films, along with other noteworthy cartoons, such as 'Robes of War,' 'Paradise,' 'The Spine,' and 'The Man Who Slept,' the stop-motion features are the ones that really took hold of my curiosity. While three of them really stand out, 'Land of the Heads' and 'Sainte Barbe' are also a delight for their creativity and weirdness. And because of my attraction for the bizarre and unusual, I really enjoyed Patrick Bouchard’s 'Subservience' even though its message of the bourgeois' dependency on blind servitude is pretty clear. Jean-François Lévesque's 'The Necktie' plays a similar role, but with better subtlety and inspired invention. With a mixture of puppetry and hand-drawn animation, Valentin's yearning for a meaningful life amidst a world of dead-end careers is satisfying and endearing.
And even among all these already great short films, the real highlight of the entire collection has to be without question the Oscar-nominated 'Madame Tutli-Putli' from Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski – the same team that brought Maurice Sendak's 'Higglety Pigglety Pop!' to life. Just as it is described, 'Madame' is an extraordinary and remarkable adventure of a woman weighed down by earthly possessions, an existential and metaphysical journey through the real and the imagined. With breathtaking imagery that is hauntingly poetic and eloquent, the film is a stunning achievement and masterwork of animated artistry. You can’t help but watch in sheer amazement as its surreal beauty unfolds throughout the whole production. No words are ever spoken by the strange characters, yet the short is incredibly expressive, thanks to the flawless work done on the eyes of Madame Tutli-Putli, which is simply phenomenal and realistically suspenseful. Based on this fantastic story alone, 'Animation Express' is very much worth its purchase price.
In the end, lovers of both animation and short films will not be disappointed with the quality of this collection. The National Film Board of Canada has amassed a wonderful and impressive assortment of talented filmmakers and artists. Some segments can strike a chord with their simple, fairytale-like anecdotes, while others provoke with comical imagery. And others still will resonate with narrative genius and a strong visual beauty that is simply unforgettable.
Considering the variety of animation styles, assessing the picture quality of 'Animation Express' as a whole is a bit tricky. Nonetheless, the 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encode (1.78.1) puts on a great, squeaky-clean show, full of vibrancy and cleanly rendered colors. Fine lines are resolute and sharp throughout with strong resolution, except for those few which were clearly upscaled from SD sources. Most all artifacts are located where minor blocking and stairstepping frequently rear their ugly heads. Color banding is another common issue found in several sequences that, although light and faint, can be distracting at times. Contrast and brightness levels, on the other hand, are perfectly balanced, providing certain shorts with beautiful clarity detail despite the lack of color, like in 'Hungu.' Not surprisingly, the stop-motion and computer-generated features are the best of the bunch and are often stunning, with gorgeous three-dimensional depth, making for a near-reference video presentation. Unfortunately, they still carry many of the posterization problems mentioned above, particularly during fade-outs and within primaries. All in all, this hi-def transfer is quite impressive – the only way to truly enjoy this wonderful collection of animated shorts.
Sadly, this Blu-ray edition of 'Animation Express' does not come in lossless audio, only in a mix of English (or French) Dolby Digital 5.1 or Stereo. Then again, the presentation is pretty darn nice and persuasive, making me wonder just how much the films would benefit from a higher-resolution codec. For those few dialogue-driven shorts, vocals are well-prioritized and lucid from beginning to end. Although mostly front-heavy, each film makes good use of the soundstage, with wide, spacious imaging and clean dynamics. The low-end is also attractive and effective at providing realistic depth, though not very extensive or powerful. Rear speakers are randomly called upon to enhance the soundfield somewhat, but movement is fairly smooth and attractive. Overall, the lossy soundtrack puts on a pretty good show and is a great complement to each animated short.
Considering the wealth of animated shorts, the supplemental package is rather disappointing. We are not even given a look at how NFB goes through its selection process or a behind-the-scenes sneak peek of at least a couple of the films. The only bonus material offered is a group of four trailers for other animation collections: 'Stories and Destinies,' 'Volatile Materials,' 'Mindtravel,' and 'Seven to See!'
'Animation Express' is a wonderful and often exhilarating collection of animated shorts presented by the National Film Board of Canada. While some are comical and exciting to watch, a few of them are highly impressive and remarkable films that demonstrate the potential of the medium. The disc arrives with a video presentation that wavers between reference quality and average depending on which segment you are watching. The audio is more consistent and works as a great complement to each piece. Although the supplemental package is a bit of a disappointment, the Blu-ray edition comes with 13 extra films. Overall, it’s a great assortment for animation and short film lovers everywhere.