Yulia screens at Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation this monthIt's been three long years since the last iteration of Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation. But the granddaddy of traveling animation tours is back with an all-new lineup of short animated movies—debuting at the La Jolla location of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego on Saturday, Feb. 13, and screening 10 more times through March 20.
First, it has to be said that the new collection has a very different look and feel compared with the festival's outings throughout the past decade. It even has a new title: A New Generation of Spike and Mike Animation. Secondly, most of the 19 films on the schedule aren't the same kind of sick-and-twisted cartoons fans have come to expect. Hell, there's even a short, Oktapodi, which was nominated for an Oscar last year. So what's going on, exactly? This is the festival best known for the adults-only, unrated, seriously gross-out cartoons that Spike and Mike have presented since 1990. Is this a kinder, gentler Spike and Mike?
“We aren't getting gentler,” Craig “Spike” Dexter tells CityBeat. “The emphasis is still that humor is the number-one criteria. They're more sophisticated and artistic, but they're also still very cool and very funny, award-winning, high-quality films. They're not sick and twisted in that respective sense, but they aren't cutesy or kiddie, either.”
So, no, it's not another collection of disturbingly sick shorts. But Spike and Mike aren't exactly walking the straight and narrow, either. Several of the films would be right at home in a Sick and Twisted program (the lineup can be perused at spikeandmike.com). The opener, Joanna Priestley's Missed Aches, gets dirtier as it progresses, Australia's Dog with Electric Collar has no shortage of blood and guts and Bill Plympton's Santa: The Fascist Years, a newsreel-type look at Saint Nick's Final Solution of global domination, improbably narrated by Matthew Modine, could not be more adult in nature.
“Some of them are on the fence,” says Dexter, who's run the outfit since Mike Gribble's death in 1994. “There are some great narratives, and it's so diverse [that] it transcends sick and twisted and gets into a different cultural mode. They're not just pushing the envelope and not just sick and twisted.”
Perhaps surprising to some, sophisticated animation is nothing new to the Spike and Mike machine. Prior to dominating the lowbrow market, they toured various collections, including shorts from the likes of Nick Park (Wallace & Gromit). There's no denying that the market for animation would not be what it is without them.
“People often forget that there weren't a lot of forums for off-the-wall animation that were accessible for a major audience,” says Neil Kendricks, the film curator for MCASD and a filmmaker himself. “The festival proved that there was a huge audience hungry for animation.”
Yes, in the days before Pixar, DreamWorks, Adult Swim and Fox's entire Sunday-night lineup, Spike and Mike was one of the only games in Toon Town. There are plenty of luminaries in the animation world who got early exposure via Sick & Twisted. Examples? Well, before they made Toy Story, Wall*E and Up, Pixar's John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Pete Doctor all had shorts screened by Spike and Mike. Matt Parker and Trey Stone's original South Park short, Jesus vs. Santa, was shown in 35-mm. UCSD alum Mike Judge, of Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill fame, got early exposure via the festival. And they've included work from Craig McCracken (Powerpuff Girls), Shane Acker (9) and Ken Navarro (Happy Tree Friends), as well as Plympton and Don Hertzfeldt, both of whom received Oscar nominations for films featured on the tour.
Oh, and perhaps you've heard of Tim Burton? The director, who's just been tapped to head the jury at the Cannes Film Festival in May, screened his short film Vincent with Spike and Mike before hitting the big time. And, Dexter says, there are several filmmakers in this year's lineup whom fans of animation will want to watch for in the coming years. “In Key Lime Pie, [Trevor Jimenez's] design and timing and story are great,” he says. “There's the design of Eleven Roses from Pedram Goshtasbpour, and Mike Roush, who made Hidden Life of the Burrowing Owl. These are extremely gifted guys who are going to be absolute superstars.”
But since it's a different take, Dexter says he's gone out of his way to emphasize to his fans that the new festival is different from the standard Sick and Twisted fare. “There is a learning curve on this one,” he says. “On the brochure, we've made it abundantly clear that this is a different genre, to the point of being blatant. I don't want to confuse people. At the same time, the quality and humor of these films—anyone who likes South Park is going to love it. There's a crossover there.”
And though it's been a while since fans have heard from Spike and Mike, Dexter says he's hoping that won't be the case again. The festival is in talks regarding several different distribution methods, including both digital downloads and a possible cable show, Dexter says. An iPhone app is a possibility. But however those options pan out, they'll continue their short-attention-span-theater approach.
“What's cool is the diversity and the flavors of story and content that can be done within a three-to-four minute short,” Dexter says. “I've never seen anything like some of these films in my life. It's like having 40 Ben and Jerry's ice creams at once—everything tastes different. And we intentionally don't program pieces that are long. So if you don't like something, it'll be over in four minutes.”