Back in the old days, moviegoers used to get a cartoon before every movie. A lot of the classic Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry, Droopy, Popeye, Superman & Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons that many of us grew up watching on TV were once savored on the big screen. Eventually filmmakers began cranking out cartoons much more cheaply for television, and it was the end of an era -- almost. In recent years, Spike & Mike's touring cartoon festival has been a big success and other cartoon festivals have joined in. Earlier this year the five Oscar-nominated animated shorts opened in theaters, although together they ran nearly two hours. The new The Animation Show 4 collects some 18 shorts and series and runs less than 90 minutes. (See official site.)

Curator Mike Judge, the gentleman behind "Beavis & Butthead" and "King of the Hill," is definitely a man who likes his cartoons to get to the point, and so the three longest shorts here run about 7 minutes apiece. Steve Dildarian's Angry Unpaid Hooker is one of them. When his girlfriend arrives home early, Tim has trouble explaining the angry unpaid hooker sitting on his couch. The befuddled Tim will go on to star in his own series, "The Life and Times of Tim." Another epic is This Way Up, from the team of Smith & Foulkes. In it, a pair of long-faced morticians (father and son?) carries a sarcophagus to its final resting place, attempting to keep the box upright despite cruel fate's best attempts to knock it down. Stefan Mueller's Mr. Schwartz, Mr. Hazen and Mr. Horlocker, from Germany, is the other "long" one. A cop investigates some noisy neighbors in an apartment building, but can't quite get the entire story until the same scenes are played out again, behind closed doors. This features the greatest cinematic drug trip since James Toback's Harvard Man.




Although Judge likes 'em short, he also likes 'em raunchy. Indeed, This Way Up is one of the most dignified of all the shorts. Two of the most violent come from the students at the Gobelins School of Animation in France, though Blind Spot is one of the best in the program. A robber attempts to knock over a convenience store, but what actually happens and what gets captured on the surveillance cameras are shockingly different. It's a brilliant, hilarious demonstration of editing as sleight-of-hand. The other Gobelins short is Voodoo, which will give viewers their share of shock and gore. Judge also includes selections from a Japanese series called "Usavich," that just gave me the creeps. A second series, "Psychotown" from Australia, is mainly made from paper cutouts and is more verbally vulgar than the rest. And an uninspired series called "Yompi the Crotch Biting Sloop" is the show's low point. These shorts run one minute apiece, with one joke apiece, and the joke is in the title.

Fortunately, Judge includes several other shorts of beauty and imagination. Known for his gross-out films (Your Face, I Married a Strange Person, etc.) the great Bill Plympton returns with the surprisingly sweet and toughing new Hot Dog, about a stray mutt that dreams of being a firefighter. One of my favorites was Western Spaghetti, from the filmmaker known as PES. It's a stop-motion masterpiece that uses toys and other household items -- everything except actual food -- to demonstrate the cooking of spaghetti. George Schwizgebel's Jeu from Switzerland is a free-form short with some lovely, mind-bending images. Meanwhile, Luis Nieto's Prof. Nieto Show (Ep 1) from France takes a long time and elaborate means to set up a fairly simple joke, but a clean one.

English animator Matthew Walker comes out on top the heap with a pair of superior shorts, Operator and John and Karen. Most of the shorts here go for sound and fury with an emphasis on speed, shock and violence, but Walker's shorts are disarmingly low-key and much funnier than the rest. In Operator, a man telephones God and seems rather surprised when he actually gets transferred through. In John and Karen, a polar bear drops by the home of a penguin. The tension is thick, and the glowering penguin serves tea and cookies. Apparently the two argued and the nervous bear has come to apologize. As opposed to constant clatter and clutter common in today's short-attention-span world, Walker uses lots of awkward pauses and almost still frames, and humorously juxtaposes the sheer size of the two creatures. Overall, The Animation Show 4 collection is a mixed bag, but the gems far outweigh the duds. The show can seem like an assault, but Judge cannily intersperses intelligence and moments of reflection amongst the chaos and bodily fluids.