‘Animation Outlaws’: Film Review

A dizzying mix of talking heads and eye-candy toon clips enliven this whirlwind history of Spike & Mike's Festival of Animation.

Animation Outlaws
Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Mike Gribble, co-founder of Spike & Mike’s Festival of Animation, was just 42 years old when he passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1994 — an awful case of a larger-than-life film-world figure dying before his work was done. That probably would have been the perfect time to unveil something like Kat Alioshin’s short, oh-so-adulatory “Animation Outlaws,” which plays more like a pop-art tribute video than a well-rounded documentary about Gribble and marginally less eccentric accomplice Craig Decker (aka “Spike”).

As it is, the film arrives well after the world of animation has been permanently reconfigured, thanks to a rebellious CG venture known as “Toy Story” (Pixar’s first feature released in November 1995, sparking a massive resurgence in the artform) and a little innovation called the internet. Today, it could be difficult to convince college kids — who grew up on Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, and for whom Japanese anime has moved mainstream — that there was a time just a few decades back Disney was practically the only game in town. As a result, Alioshin’s doc has a “guess you had to be there” quality, as toon creators who got a boost from Spike & Mike’s Festival of Animation say things like “It was just wonderful” for the better part of 68 minutes, while clips of their most distinctive work flash by on greenscreens behind their heads.

Still, when candied apples are the only thing on the menu, one can imagine how a certain kind of audience might actually be grateful to bite into a razor blade for a change. That’s where Spike and Mike delivered the counterprogramming, encouraging indie toon creators to develop their more subversive side, and rewarding them with national exposure — and in-person appearances — as part of a well-publicized theatrical program. Some, like Andrew Stanton (whose “Somewhere in the Arctic” was selected) and Pete Docter (invited with “Winter”), went on to work at major studios.

“It’s how I met John Lasseter,” explains Stanton, who once told me about a list of rules the early Pixar team drew up to distinguish their movies from the Disney formula:

  • No songs
  • No “I want” moments
  • No Happy Village
  • No love story
  • No villain

All these years later, Pixar has developed a feel-good formula of its own, but I can’t help thinking that mentality of corporate defiance may have been encouraged by Spike and Mike. The duo are now associated with the words “sick and twisted,” which was initially used to describe a separate roster of shorts too crude and offensive to be included in the family-friendly show. But even their all-ages lineup was meant to shock — like Marv Newland’s classic “Bambi Meets Godzilla” — and it might have been nice to learn more about their selection process. Humor is the only criteria they identify here.

Like an unkempt pair of mismatched socks, Spike (who seldom appeared without a novelty hat or other form of wacky headgear) and Mike (with his fluorescent beard) met in Riverside, Calif., where they shared a house with few rules. The brains behind “Beavis and Butthead” — which likely wouldn’t have existed without Spike and Mike’s support — Mike Judge remembers that guests could park their motorcycles in the living room, while vintage photos show horses inside the so-called “Mellow Manor.” Such details suggest that Alioshin is barely scratching the surface when it comes to stories about these nonconformists’ private lives.

In a stop-motion sequence custom-made for the film by Tim Hittle, Spike reveals what motivated him: After hating a paperboy job he had as a kid, he swore to “make money without getting up early in the morning.” Between the talking heads and vintage photos (which have been crudely altered to appear alive), animators Cindy Ng and Lyla Warren step in to supply colorful animated bits that illustrate amusing biographical details. Spike and Mike scoured film festivals (like Annecy and Ottawa) and student showcases for the weirdest short films they could find. The duo would assemble roughly two hours’ worth into a brain-melting annual program, which they then hyped in ways that would have impressed even P.T. Barnum.

Alioshin incorporates a decent amount of footage from these rowdy shows, including audience-participation routines where the camera focuses on the crowd. What she never points out but seems self-evident is the relatively narrow demographic Spike and Mike served: white folks, of college age or slightly older, who craved a certain flavor of subversion.

Did the shows expand their horizons? Absolutely. Did it create career opportunities for such brilliant artists as Nick Park, Bill Plympton and Seth Green? Without a doubt. (Spike and Mike even gave them Oscar-qualifying runs at a time when hardly anyone was paying attention to the animated short category.) But a segment celebrating all the women they included fails to acknowledge the limits of what appealed to them: These underground champions had huge blindspots when it came to elevating those whose visions didn’t align with their own.

Spike and Mike programmed what they thought was funny, the weirder the better, drawing a line around “outsider animation” that left many voices still excluded on the fringe. The only animator of color featured in the doc is “Happy Tree Friends” creator Kenn Navarro, whose sick-and-twisted sensibility was right on their wavelength. While politically incorrect may have been their brand, they could have done better — which is meant less as a critique than a reminder for those who might find future-looking inspiration in “Animation Outlaws.” Short films have always been the ideal medium for emerging artists to express themselves, often without much hope of theatrical exposure, and the internet has made unusual work easier than ever to sample. We could all stand to widen our horizons.

‘Animation Outlaws’: Film Review

Reviewed online, Los Angeles, July 15, 2020. (In Slamdance Film Festival.) Running time: 67 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Gravitas Ventures release. Producer: Kat Alioshin.
  • Crew: Director: Kat Alioshin. Camera: Carl Miller. Editor: Erica Jordan. Music: John Nau, Andrew Feltenstein.
  • With: Craig “Spike” Decker, Mike Gribble, Bruno Bozzetto, Pete Docter, Joan C. Gratz, Seth Green, Mike Judge, Peter Lord, Mike Mitchell, Kenn Navarro, Marv Newland, Nick Park, David Sproxton, Andrew Stanton, Will Vinton, "Weird Al" Yankovic.