Long regarded as the Cannes of the cartoon set, "Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation" has in recent years become something closer to its ShoWest. Having introduced the world to Beavis and Butt-head, Ren and Stimpy and the "South Park" kids, the festival has been a consistent barometer of which taboo-shattering two-dimensional characters are about to take the world -- and its T-shirt shops -- by storm.
Planning your future plush purchases according to this year's batch of offerings, however, may prove a serious mistake. Based on the 13 entries we've been able to preview, the mischievous Spike and Mike have ceded their status as talent scouts of cutting-edge 'toonery to the ink-hungry cable networks. Why should an animator bother with the theatrical circuit at all, when Comedy Central needed its next Cartman yesterday?
You won't find him in No Neck Joe, the star of a series of shorts the "Park" tykes would instantly dismiss as "lame." An elongated torso with facial features, the nape-challenged Joe can neither wear a tie nor turn his head without shifting his entire body along with it. A bloodthirsty vampire even attempts to prey on Joe, only to find that our hero has no neck to bite! High-concept humor perhaps, but tiresome after only 20 seconds.
The laughs are more genuine in "Beyond Grandpa," a collection of vignettes that cast everyone's most embarrassing relative in a number of bizarre scenarios. Not all hit their mark, but it's nearly impossible to keep a straight face when the old codger is suspended upside-down in a well, where he masturbates while uttering the fantasy-laden provocation "Who's your Daddy?" through a mouthful of dentures.
Clips such as these are "sick and twisted" in the best sense, but they're few and far between. More typical is the in-house production "Sick & Twisted Special Games," a Special Olympics takeoff that doesn't boast enough side-splitting gags to justify its immersion in cruelty. If mockery of the handicapped automatically sends you for the exit doors, you're probably not part of the festival's target audience, but it's still easy to bemoan the script's reliance on shouts of "retard" whenever inspiration fails -- which is often. And Monty Python fans have good reason to be incensed that the best the pair can do is to ape the older-than-the-hills (but still priceless) "Twit of the Year" sketch.
The biggest tipoff that this party is running out of pretzels is the inclusion of not one, but two "South Park" shorts. "The Spirit of Christmas" -- the widely bootlegged pilot film that was already screened as part of last year's festival -- is joined by "Frosty," a no-budget progenitor that's even cruder (in the mechanical sense). Comparing the two makes for an interesting history lesson, but we have a right to expect more from Spike and Mike than a continuing capitalization on mass media's most overexposed gross-out. In animation, one has to draw the line somewhere.