There are two extremes when it comes to violence and death in animation: the if-this-doesn’t-kill-you-nothing-will slapstick mayhem of Tom & Jerry and the serious make-you-lose-your-faith-in-humanity cruelty in the films of Yeon Sang-ho (Seoul Station, The King of Pigs). You can find pretty much everything in between in a new Czech animated anthology. Death is bittersweet, otherworldly, and ironic, but it is never dull in Jan Bubeníček’s Murderous Tales (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2016 Anchorage International Film Festival.
For these three short films and the interstitial sketches, Bubeníček pretty much does it all: 2D, 3D, stop motion, mo-cap, back projection, and live action hybrids. Yet, he seems have a consistent, somewhat noir-ish style, except perhaps for the Groo the Wanderer-esque Charge the Dragon interludes. They are amusing, but they seem like inconsequential tidbits compared the three full-course-meal tales.
In look and tone, Antonio Cacto is somewhat similar to Adam (Mary and Max) Elliot, but less sentimental and more fantastical. Upon inheriting his grandfather’s flat a (live action) man discovers a mischievous Mexican hobgoblin (3D animated) living in the cactus. Chaos ensues, but there is massive payoff at the end.
The shapes and mannerisms of the characters of the essentially wordless Lighthouse might evoke memories of Shane Acker’s 9 for some viewers, but this black-and-white world is more mysterious, yet also more richly realized. The professor is a field researcher from another world, sent to an outpost on the edge of a swamp on our planet, or one very much like it. He tries to live in harmony with the alien environment around him, so he is appalled to learn his “Superior” has very different intentions. He will go rogue to protect the creatures that most intrigue him: cows.
The Big Man is sort of the Czech Tarantino film with hitmen puppets we have waited so long for. A veteran mob killer and his socially unskilled new partner are supposed to whack the titular rival gang-leader, but when they lose their directions all kinds of complications set in. It is a solid piece that would ordinarily serve as a dynamite calling card, but it is almost anti-climactic following the arresting visuals of Lighthouse and the wonderfully humanistic sensibility of Antonio Cacto. It is “just” very good, whereas the previous two constituent short films are simply terrific.