Changing our ’toons

Dec 20, 2006 at 12:00 am

Spike and Mike's Sick & Twisted Animation Festival is back once again, like a virus for which there is no known cure. After 16 years and thousands of animated shorts featuring countless stabbings, mutilations, dismemberments, millions of gallons of blood, endless fart jokes and scores of naked bunnies, one question remains: Does the world really need Spike and Mike anymore?

Once upon a time there was a desperate need for an underground festival of dirty cartoons. It was a time of bland, toned-down Smurf-y homogeny that made Saturday mornings listless, a time when big-screen animation was unwatchable pabulum. Of course, those were the days before premium cable and the Web — long before the lowbrow populism of YouTube allowed us to see guys getting kicked in the nuts in 70 different languages, 24 hours a day.

Somewhere along the way, the transgressive thrill of naughty cartoons lost some luster, and when the mainstream toons got "sick and twisted" too, it became hard to distinguish the raw amateur from the slick commercial fake. Nowadays, it's almost taken for granted that cartoons are subversive. Once-shocking originals that started out as no-budget festival shorts, like South Park and Beavis and Butt-head, became mammoth TV hits. Many more that followed copied the format — such as Family Guy, which survives because of its outrageousness — and have become major commodities readily available for purchase at big box retailers. When Cartoon Network — a subsidiary of the major media conglomerate Time Warner — airs a new show called Assy McGee about crime fighting buttocks, then the jig is pretty much up. Congratulations dudes, the war is over; you won. The revolution is being televised.

Yet the festival remains popular as a theatrical event, touring dozens of cities nationwide, including annual stops at Ferndale's Magic Bag since 1992. So what exactly is it that attracts people to this crazy thing year after bloody year? Well, for starters there is the joy of a communal experience, the comforting sound of other sickos laughing at acts of animal cruelty just as loudly as you. Secondly, seeing these things in an actual theater means you don't get popcorn butter on your laptop. Also, you can't underestimate the importance of zippy brand names, and the name "Spike and Mike" carries a certain kind of hip cachet. But a trademark only goes so far, and when the lights go down and the pretty pictures start rolling, there better be some entertainment. And make it snappy.

Speed is of the essence in an anthology like this, and this year's helping of 21 brand-spanking-new shorts zooms along at a rapid pace. Styles and techniques vary widely, as does the quality, but the show must go on, and the hits just keep getting hurled, splattering the screen with colorful chunks of offal that slide away quickly.

One of the friendlier offerings is Craig McKracken's No Neck Joe, an endearing little mutant with a big libido, whose healthy appetite for girls seems almost tame in comparison to the racier stuff in the lineup. Sex sells, and it is flying off the shelves here, in a buttload of 'toons that offer all manner of perverse kicks. Some are blissfully short and simple, like Titty Bop, which is as the name implies a simple but effective sight gag involving mammary glands, or Love and Limbs, wherein a pair of generic Ken and Barbie look-alikes explores weird amputee fetishes. Others linger a bit too long on a flimsy premise, such as the crude and rude Chirpy, which features the painful-looking interspecies dalliance of a baby chick and a male horse. Ouch!

Further interspecies smut occurs in Asexuality, featuring a vociferous sun flower, who waxes poetic until being sexually assaulted by a honeybee. Then there is the childish glee of My First Boner, a cheerful ditty about that most special day in a young boy's life, sung by a jaunty, cigar-chomping sun in the style of a Schoolhouse Rock segment. It's cute and effective, with a catchy theme song to boot.

Another funny musical segment is Brad Neely's twitchy and hilarious George Washington, a punkish ode to the many hidden talents of the great general. Did you know that our nation's first president "fucked the shit out of bears"? Well, you do now. These bits pale in comparison to the swooning indie rock loveliness of Don't Fuck with Love, an ornate pop-up book/stop-motion hybrid with an excellent tune by a band called The Sad Little Stars. It's surprising to see something this elegantly handcrafted and winsome in the middle of all the crass chaos, but it serves as a nice respite.

The nastiness swings right back with Fool's Gold, about a hapless prospector who keeps getting punished for his greed in increasingly hurtful ways, none of which are very funny.

Even more sadistic is the puppet piece Teddy Bear Picnic, which somehow manages to turn a skit with cuddly plush toys into a truly gruesome horror show straight out of a Takashi Miike torture porn flick. Also mining the tired convention of cute and fuzzy creatures getting maimed is the Happy Tree Friends, who have been milking the crappy hyper-violent Itchy and Scratchy knockoff act for quite some time with diminishing results. Yet still they get asked back to the party year in, year out.

More rewarding are the shorts that break away from the gross-out mold, as in the highly amusing and inventive One D, with a stick figure world that that recalls the classic kid's geometry novel, Flatland. One of the real visual treats is the intricately drawn How to Cope with Death, with a lush look and European-style gallows humor. Another winner is 2 in the AM PM, using the flexibility of animation and some good old reliable drug humor to render the tripped-out fantasies of some late-night clerks.

Perhaps the most idiosyncratic, and wildest piece in the whole lineup is Pirate Baby's Cabana Battle Street Fight, a head-warping ride that looks exactly a Super Nintendo game of late-'80s vintage. There is a weirdly hypnotic flow to watching two tiny Japanese hipster sprites plow through wave after wave of freaky monsters and zombie babies, and then summoning help from characters like "The Ghosts of a Million Dead Mosquitoes."

After all, it's cool stuff like this that thinks out of the squirrel mutilation box, which should continue to happen if Spike and Mike hopes to stay relevant.


The 14th Annual Spike and Mike's Sick & Twisted Animation Festival runs Tuesday, Dec. 26, through Saturday, Dec. 30, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-3030.

Corey Hall is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]