Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney Channel are all names that spark a wave of nostalgia in me. As a kid growing up in the ‘90s, I had my fair share of sitting in front of a television watching cartoons for hours on end. For me, animation was a form of entertainment, and being able to see it as an artistic expression for the first time was a real eye-opener.
Last Tuesday, UCR hosted Craig “Spike” Deckers as part of Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation. The festival, a collection of short animated films, annually tours across the country and is best known as being one of the premiere outlets for independent, experimental and foreign animation. The festival has also helped launch the careers of up-and-coming animators. Popular contributors include the likes of Danny Antonucci (“Ed, Edd n Eddy”), John R. Dilworth (“Courage the Cowardly Dog”) and even Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of “South Park” — also known as my childhood.
The show was, at its very core, a celebration of UCR’s recent acquisition of Deckers’ and Mike Gribble’s lifetime collection of 35-millimeter prints, “negs” and soundtracks. The archive includes hundreds of animated films that Deckers considers to be artistic masterpieces among the animation community. With all of this, Deckers hopes to “get things brewing again in Riverside.” According to associate professor of media and cultural studies, Derek Burrill, acquiring this collection sets UCR apart because it puts the university on the level of schools like UCLA and USC who have major media archives. With UCR in sole possession of Spike and Mike’s awesome collection, students will now be allowed to conduct studies on animation and how it has affected American culture.
Decker stated that “all ages identify with animation,” and when I arrived at the event, I instantly saw what he meant. A long line stretched from the University Theatre to Olmsted, packed with people I could only describe as an older generation of cartoon fans. Many of them were parents with their children. The event seemed to be a bonding experience between two generations of cartoon lovers.
As I settled into my seat, I noticed that everyone seemed to know someone, and whether it was a reunion of old friends or a family get-together, I got the sense that the audience was a tightly knit community woven over the years. Among the audience were some popular friends of Deckers and Gribble, like Libby Simon, producer of the first season of the “Ren and Stimpy Show.”
The show started with Burrill taking the stage and having the crowd chant “Spike and Mike” to summon the man himself: Craig “Spike” Decker. When Decker took the stage, the crowd erupted in cheers and praise. He briefly talked about his time at Riverside City College, starting the festival at the Riverside Landis Auditorium and touring around the world for nearly 37 years before ending up on our campus. Without further ado, Decker bestowed upon us the night’s festivities.
Alan Becker’s “Animator vs. Animation” kicked things off. The first film showcased the events that follow when an animator’s creation becomes sentient and tries to escape the deadly fate of being erased. One of the highlights of the film’s comedy was the use of actual MS Paint tools as weapons. Immediately following was Trevor Jimenez’s noir-inspired animation, “Key Lime Pie.” The animation was a drastic change in style and pace as it tells the tale of how a man’s obsession with key lime pie brings him to the brink of insanity, and a chance encounter with the grim reaper, in a very Tim Burton-esque fashion.
Many of the shorts were lighthearted and kept laughs rolling constantly throughout the show. Alexey Alexeev’s “Log Jam” followed three “professional” musicians — the Bear, the Rabbit and the Wolf — as they tried to rehearse in the forest, but were constantly interrupted. Bill Plympton’s “Guard Dog” told the tale of a dog who is overprotective, seeing simple things like birds, grasshoppers and little girls as dangerous threats that must be barked at, while Christopher Confronti’s short “Frog” told the misadventures of a frog on a very sunny day.
Bernardo Britto’s “Yearbook” was the first of many deep and experimental films sprinkled throughout the show. It completely captivated the audience with its powerful and gripping message, telling the story of a man who is hired to compile the definitive history of human existence before the planet blows up. The short begs the question of who is in charge of keeping memories alive, or whether we are destined to be forgotten.
My personal favorite was Benjamin Kousholt’s “The Saga of Bjorn.” The film told the tale of Bjorn, an old Viking who wants to enter the gates of Valhalla, but in order to do so he must die in battle. Bjorn goes on a quest to find a warrior strong enough to kill him. On the way, Bjorn meets countless warriors who all die in silly and misfortunate ways. When Bjorn finally does meet his match as he saves nuns from a gigantic monster, he comes face to face with Valhalla, only to have it ripped from his palms because the nuns put a cross over his grave, sending him to boring old heaven. The film teaches the important lesson that one man’s heaven is another man’s hell.
The audience showed an appreciation for animation as an artistic expression like none other, taking the time to carefully acknowledge the work of the animators. After each short, there was a roar of cheers. Even the most macabre or silly animation was not left without applause. It was easy to tell that the audience appreciated what each animator had to offer, and because of this, it made the event seem all the more welcoming to up-and-coming animation.
Deckers took the stage again for the conclusion of the show, and was greeted by an applause of appreciation. He expressed the idea of hopefully having more events such as this on campus, as well as “more theatrical shows and guest animators.” By doing so, he hopes to garner more appreciation of animation as an art form — something that, due to growing up watching cartoons on television as a form of entertainment, ‘90s kids such as myself tend to overlook. With this, the crowd agreed by giving another round of applause. Unfortunately, the night did not end with the promised Q-and-A segment, and instead ended with Deckers signing autographs in the University Theatre lobby. Although the audience did not get the chance to pick Deckers’ brain, they got a chance to bond with the man who created such a wonderful event.
As the night ended, I felt as if I got to see the flipside of a coin. I went in expecting to see cartoons that I had grown up with all my life: commercial products made solely for entertainment purposes of young children. But my experience at Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation taught me to see animation as an art form capable of expressing deep, meaningful ideas. Hopefully, with UCR’s new archive of animation, we can eliminate the idea that animation is something only to be laughed at.