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2020 Ottawa International Animation Festival

30 countries, 82 shorts, 3 features, 11 days

I wasn’t able to make my annual trip to Ottawa this year for obvious reasons, but thankfully, in lieu of canceling the festival, they took the whole thing online, so I was still able to get my animation fix. Since all kinds of events have had to rapidly move online this year with wildly varying results, I kind of expected it to be a shit show, but with the exception of a few hiccups, I was pleasantly surprised by how smoothly it went. Hats off to the OIAF technical staff and the Eventive platform! I missed the atmosphere and energy of the festival, so watching at home was definitely not the same, but it was certainly better than nothing.

The festival was spread out over a longer period of time than usual (11 days instead of five, of which I usually only do two), and the short competition screenings at the heart of it were spread out over more screenings (eight instead of five). This helped me keep up with the screenings and see more than I would have otherwise, since I wasn’t taking off work to focus on the festival this time. I ultimately took in 13 screenings.

This year’s most interesting takeaway is that my two favorite films, Urban Sphinx and Beyond Noh are very similar in a very specific way: they’re each documents of visual culture, using thousands of still photos in sequence. The resulting persistence of vision creates a kinetic portrait: in the case of Urban Sphinx, it’s the varied art of a particular time and place (street art in modern Valencia, Spain); for Beyond Noh, it’s one common type of art (masks) as it’s been expressed across many times and places. Both of them bowled me over, so I’ll be on the lookout for more of this kind of work.

Anyway, below are my notes from the festival, including ratings and reviews for all of the 65 short films in the main competition. Links are provided to films or trailers when available, with embeds of some of my favorites.

Short Film Competition 1

Lightning Bolt “Blow to the Head”

Caleb Wood (Commissioned, USA)

I’m a big fan of Lightning Bolt, and this is an excellent visual expression of their dense and frenetic sound, taking cues from the vivid palette and chaotic line work of the band’s album art without replicating it wholesale.

Altötting

Andreas Hykade (Narrative, Germany, Canada, Portugal)

An autobiographical tale of a boy’s love affair with the Virgin Mary, who apparently stays young by absorbing the negative energy of visitors to her shrine in the town of Altötting. I didn’t really get it, but I’ll give Hykade points for style: I recognized his distinctive aesthetic from another of his short films I saw 20 years ago.

Happy Year of the Rat 2020

Lei Lei (Commissioned, China)

A celebration of the Chinese new year with a pleasant collage look. Slight and forgettable but blessedly brief.

Polka-Dot Boy

Sarina Nihei (Narrative, France)

Taking a page out of eastern Europe’s playbook, Polka-Dot Boy’s inscrutable narrative had just enough of a sense of mystery and weird wordless emotional detachment to keep me engaged. Unlike most of its post-communist forebears, however, I got the sense that I was meant to have a rational understanding of what was going on, which… I did not.

La mer à boire (The Sea is Too Much to Drink)

Charlotte Arene (Non-Narrative, France)

A sleeping woman’s dreams of the sea come alive as the contents of her bedroom assume the properties of water. The transformation of matter from one element to another is a magnificent use of animation (I’m particularly fond of its appearance as ocean waves made of clothing in 2017’s Negative Space), and this film’s pixilation is an especially striking example of it.

Human Nature

Sverre Fredriksen (Narrative, Netherlands)

On paper it sounds like the stuff of a trite PETA campaign: What if humans’ dominance of the animal kingdom were reversed? But Human Nature is a delightfully grotesque articulation of the concept, putting felted puppets of misshapen humans in the place of both wild and domesticated animals, to hilarious effect.

SH_T Happens

David Stumpf, Michaela Mihalyi (Student, Czech Republic, Slovakia, France)

A fun little tale of infidelity unfolding in an apartment building menagerie, with excellent design throughout and a circuitous plot that maintains impressive clarity despite its absence of dialogue.

Papa Sun

Noah Gallagher (Student, USA)

Precisely the sort of insufferably pretentious undergrad exercise I have no patience for.

Short Film Competition 2

My Exercise

Atsushi Wada (Narrative, Japan)

A boy moves through an exercise regimen with the help of his dog. Cute and quirky, but there’s not much to it. As I understand it, the animation in this was created primarily for a video game, which might explain why it doesn’t really work as a film.

Room with a Sea View

Leonid Shmelkov (Student, Estonia)

I don’t know if it’s an asset or a liability that Priit Parn’s influence on his students is so recognizable, but one could certainly have worse teachers. This Parn acolyte applies the Estonian flavor of surrealism to a slightly more coherent story than most, which makes its lack of resolution conspicuous, but I really like what it does with its mush-mouthed characters and limited color palette.

Walking with a Killer

Marcos Sanchez (Commissioned, USA, Chile)

Flowers and other colorful organic forms emerge from various old black and white film footage. That’s the visual through line, and it looks nice, but the footage is seemingly random and the whole thing feels completely disconnected from the wistful Breeders song it accompanies.

Mor visste ingenting (Mother Didn’t Know)

Anita Killi (Narrative, Norway)

A sad girl has her frown turned upside down by a kindly old man and a bird. This film is staged with such gravitas that you’d expect there to be something more to it, but that’s pretty much it. So much effort is put into conveying this girl’s deep reserves of sorrow, and I appreciate that we don’t need to know the source of that sorrow, but the pat “she gets cheered up; the end” resolution does a disservice to everything that came before it. Small moments of affirmation can be powerful, but this one mostly just felt small.

Kaspersky ‘Interview’

Alexandra Krechman (Commissioned, Russia)

A clever ad for security software, anthropomorphizing digital map pins and emoji in a demonstration of how our freewheeling social media data can betray us at job interviews.

Hangend (Hanging)

Mathieu Georis (Student, Belgium)

A fun stop-motion exploration of charcoal drawing, but it would probably benefit from more focus. Between the initial sequence which tracks the step-by-step creation of charcoal sticks from twigs, and the following process of those sticks making a drawing that takes on a mischievous life of it’s own, it feels like two separate films with two separate aims.

Ártemis

Bárbara Cerro (Commissioned, Argentina)

It’s unclear who commissioned this film or why (signal film for a festival?), which is a little distracting, but its monochromatic view of women sunbathing on the surface of the moon is a well rendered, confidently laid back oddity that I would have liked to spend a bit more time with.

Thanadoula

Robin McKenna (Narrative, Canada)

Another one that ends before it really gets going, which is especially disappointing in this case because it sets up multiple interesting thematic avenues it neglects to really explore; namely, the narrator’s work in palliative care and the life of her emotionally troubled sister. The film’s imagery is a gorgeous painterly collage imbued with the atmospheric haze of distant memory, but that lovingly constructed mis-en-scène is overpowered for a story that’s barely half told.

Esfinge urbana (Urban Sphinx)

María Lorenzo (Non-Narrative, Spain)

These short competition screenings tend to end with a crowd pleaser, and after all the false starts that made up much of this program, Urban Sphinx packs a welcome punch. Each of its fast-moving frames is a photograph of a piece of street art in Valencia, and the kinetic energy it teases out of its incredibly rich sequence of images makes it a breathtaking love letter to the scene.

Short Film Competition 3

Living in a Box

Theodore Ushev (Non-Narrative, Canada)

Quarantine cabin fever expressed as a man’s N95-masked head trapped in a cardboard box. Not terribly clever. As a way to vent some nervous creative energy during a pandemic, this is fine, but if someone less established than Theodore Ushev had done it, I doubt it would be showing at festivals.

Hide

Daniel Gray (Narrative, France, Canada, Hungary)

A kid playing hide and seek at a friend’s home hides in a cabinet and observes intimate family moments through the cracks, seemingly over the course of decades. The voyeuristic concept is more interesting than the story itself, such as it is. The domestic details are often impressionistic and the parts with more clarity don’t add up to much.

Don’t Touch Your Face

Leah Shore (Commissioned, USA)

A kooky PSA from the early days of the pandemic (which feels like a lifetime ago), with a catchy tune and a vicious disciplinarian of a cat to remind you not to touch your face. You no touchie!

Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Meredith Binnette (Student, USA)

Mutating organic forms generated from astronomical data. An appropriately descriptive name taken from a Charles Darwin quote. Lush, prismatic, and entrancing. Great music and sound design, too.

In The Shadow of the Pines

Anne Koizumi (Narrative, Canada)

I ache for this woman and identify deeply with her regret about not appreciating her father while he was still alive, but everything about this film feels like a first draft.

Sparks ‘One For The Ages’

Chintis Lundgren (Commissioned, Estonia)

Lundgren’s usually enjoyable vibe seems to be at its best when it’s supported by dialog rather than backing up a forgettable Sparks song. Whatever was meant to be happening in its silly office vignette was lost on me.

Ghosts

Jee-Youn Park (Non-Narrative, South Korea)

I’m having trouble summoning the energy to parse or even describe this one, but I didn’t mind watching it, and I hope one day I can have a better understanding of the tradition it participates in and the sort of headspace that generated it.

Alien Felines From Beyond The Galaxy

Ugo Vittu, Peter the Moon (Narrative, France)

Exactly what the title says, I guess, but its crude collage, choppy movement, and general pandemonium made it too hard to follow, like listening to a young kid tell a story. Not for me, but I can appreciate that the filmmakers appear to have had a lot of fun making it, and the music is good.

Short Film Competition 4

I was pretty tired when I watched this screening, which may be partially responsible for me finding its films generally underwhelming. I struggled to find something to say about most of them.

Något att minnas (Something to Remember)

Niki Lindroth von Bahr (Narrative, Sweden)

For some reason the festival was prevented from making this film available to view online, which is a bummer, because I really liked Lindroth von Bahr’s previous film, The Burden.

Plants and Animals ‘House on Fire’

Emily Pelstring (Commissioned, Canada)

Various random hand-drawn objects float around a blurry field of saturated colors and retro 3-D effects. A screen saver, basically, and not one I wanted to watch for five minutes. At least it vibes with the song, which is more than I can say for some of the other music videos in competition this year. I had planned to watch the Emily Pelstring retrospective included in this year’s screenings, but this made me rethink that.

Naked

Kirill Khachaturov (Student, Russia)

A guy discovers that his body can move through other objects, though his clothes don’t come with it. Kind of a basic idea that was likely inspired by the 3-D software used to make the film, but its warped character models and pensive demeanor won me over.

Habito ‘The Climb’

Andy Baker (Commissioned, USA, UK)

An ad for a real estate mobile app with a colorful take on the competitive nature of home buying. It packs a lot into a 30-second spot, which makes it feel rushed. I’d be curious to see a version twice as long.

Lizard Ladder

Ted Wiggin (Narrative, USA)

A lizard and a dog something something. I spaced out pretty early on this one. The most memorable aspect of it is its pixelated Amiga look. From his bio, I gather that Wiggin wrote the software that powered this film, which is cool, but I was very tired when I watched it and it didn’t do much to command my attention.

Cockpera

Kata Gugic (Student, Croatia)

Chickens singing opera are funny.

Hierarchy Glitch

Vessela Dantcheva (Non-Narrative, Bulgaria, Austria)

Hand-drawn lines and squares shift and expand. Nice colors and textures, and a good fit for its chamber ensemble score.

KKUM

Kangmin Kim (Narrative, South Korea, USA)

A man is protected by his mother’s dreams. Interesting idea with a neat styrofoam aesthetic, but I wish the conclusions it draws were better articulated.

Short Film Competition 5

Moon King ‘Free Time’

Jordan Minkoff (Commissioned, Canada)

Neither its look nor its sound really appeals to me superficially, but there’s something about this music video’s attitude, simultaneously gonzo and laid back, that I ultimately enjoy.

Homeless Home

Alberto Vázquez (Narrative, France, Spain)

The inhabitants of a post-apocalyptic fantasy realm try to put themselves back together after a devastating war. Can’t say I’ve ever seen anything quite like it, and while its main theme—“No one can escape their roots, however rotten they may be”—sounds cynically fatalistic, the film drips with pathos. It’s dark but not draining. Looks great too.

Beyond Noh

Patrick Smith (Non-Narrative, USA, Japan)

I can’t describe it better than the festival guide: “Beyond Noh rhythmically animates 3,475 individual masks from all over the world, beginning with the distinctive masks of the Japanese Noh theater and continuing on a cultural journey through ritual, utility, deviance, and politics.” It’s completely astonishing, using a rapid-fire journey through costume traditions to convey human parallels between countless cultures and subcultures across continents and hundreds of years.

2.3 x 2.6 x 3.2

Jiaqi Wang (Student, UK)

A tribute to a relative’s battle with cancer. Employs a variety of styles, but is at its best when it emulates woodcuts. Affecting narration from the cancer survivor.

Tricky Women / Tricky Realities 2020 Trailer

Rachel Gutgarts (Commissioned, Austria, Israel)

Grayscale hand-drawn insects going about their business are made unsettling by an eerie experimental electronic score.

Pá kis panelom! (Bye Little Block!)

Éva Darabos (Student, Hungary)

After finalizing the sale of her apartment, a woman wistfully takes stock of the community she’s leaving. Having recently experienced a similar uprooting myself, I found her observations of her neighbors, which stretch far into whimsical surreality, to have a unique authenticity.

Onoe Caponoe ‘The Message’

TOCHKA (Commissioned, Netherlands, UK, Japan)

Inventive explorations of post-processing on live action footage of people dressed as cats dancing on a scorched earth and escaping from the same via spaceship. An appropriately bananas video for a glitchy hip hop song. My favorite bit comes early in the video: an eye-popping fisheye drone shot of a cat person dancing at the ocean’s edge, on a planet roughly 10 feet in diameter.

Opera

Erick Oh (Non-Narrative, South Korea, USA)

A pyramid view, both concise and sprawling, of pretty much the whole of human social ritual: birth, death, worship, education, art, sport, family, community, naturally culminating in war. I’ve always been a sucker for this kind of cyclical storytelling (even though there isn’t a narrative here per se), and this one is decidedly more ambitious than most. Its macro perspective is sure to reward many micro viewings since it can’t possibly be fully absorbed by seeing it once, yet that first viewing is very satisfying. More than any other film in the fest, I wish I could have seen this one on the big screen.

Short Film Competition 6

Kuricorder Quartet ‘Southpaw’

Sawako Kabuki (Commissioned, Japan)

Flat colors and fun rotoscoped choreography for a peppy composition for two recorders. Nothing more than it needs to be, and nothing less.

10 000 Ugly Inkblots

Dmitry Geller (Narrative, Russia)

Two artists travel to meet each other, and then… meet each other. En route, we see various slice-of-life scenarios they travel through. Neither its ink wash aesthetic nor its general aimlessness really appealed to me.

Adult Swim ‘Super Sentai Rick’

Pádraig Fagan, Eimhin McNamara (Commissioned, USA)

An Adult Swim promo featuring a giant robot version of Rick (of Rick and Morty fame) battling a giant monster. It’s fine, but as 15-second bumpers go, it doesn’t rise above the level of filler.

Perennial Stream

Sonnye Lim (Non-Narrative, USA)

Bland ethereal music and what appears to be pseudo-cosmological imagery is apparently meant to be a “portrayal of growth and decay” via the animation of charcoal residue. It’s possible for any of those elements to work for me, but none of them did this time.

Moi, Barnabé (I, Barnabé)

Jean-Francois Levesque (Narrative, Canada)

An alcoholic priest grapples with his demons, in the form of a weathervane rooster come to life. Kind of interesting when seen as a companion to First Reformed, though not nearly as weighty. Solid (if fairly generic) 3-D models, environments, and animation.

Jo Goes Hunting ‘Careful’

Alice Saey (Commissioned, France, Netherlands)

I didn’t care for the song at all, but I loved the hand-drawn style and especially the color palette. In addition to being great eye candy, all kinds of strange activities are depicted, which takes the left brain on sort of a separate journey of its own.

A forrás és a torony (The Wellspring and the Tower)

Melinda Kádár (Student, Hungary)

A fascinating tour of an imagined ecosystem, which looks kind of like a moving Salvadore Dalí painting.

Doghead

Momo Takenoshita (Student, Japan)

This year’s token nudge to get me into psychedelic drugs. I waited too long to write about it, so the specifics are hazy, but something about a dog in outer space that becomes a planet that turns the human astronauts that discover it into dogs? Completely bananas and pretty fun.

Dune

Gàbor Ulrich (Non-Narrative, Hungary)

Minimal drawings of tall grass waving in the breeze. I was intrigued initially, but unfortunately the more I saw, the less it spoke to me.

Short Film Competition 7

A Girl Who’s Afraid Of Touching People

Liang Hsin Huang (Student, UK, Taiwan)

This one just wasn’t for me, and I can’t really summon anything to say about it.

Consumerland

Bjarne Anmarkrud (Commissioned, Norway)

An amusement park ironically celebrating disposable goods and planned obsolescence. About as straightforward a critique of consumerism as I can imagine. Pretty dull.

Sogni al campo

Magda Guidi, Mara Cerri (Narrative, France)

A coming of age story about a boy losing his cat and learning to cope with death. I like how it shows more than it tells, but something about its low frame rate made me a bit dizzy.

cumcumcumcumcum everybody

Peter Millard (Non-Narrative, UK)

A comically expressive examination of the male orgasm, soundtracked by an appropriately profane audio collage. Of all the films in competition, this one is ostensibly most readily compared to Ivan Li’s Fruit, though cumcumcumcumcum everybody is more curious and less frantic.

Schast’e (Happiness)

Andrey Zhidkov (Narrative, Russia)

I’d expect a tale of isolation to resonate in this plague year, but much more than its loose narrative, I latched onto its rich, dark, hand-painted visual style.

France ‘Patrouille de France / Dernier tour’

Emmanuel Lantam (Commissioned, France)

A slick and stylish French take on Top Gun’s bromance. An enjoyable watch, and I especially appreciate the attention to quotidian detail on the audience for the air show at the center of it, but as is sometimes the case with these commissioned films, I was distracted trying to figure out who commissioned it and why.

Anonymous

Steven Subotnick (Non-Narrative, USA)

I always enjoy Subotnick’s textures, but this vague portrait of a bear hunter didn’t do much for me.

Just a Guy

Shoko Hara (Narrative, Germany)

A pretty stunning document of some of the romances carried on by the serial killer Richard Ramirez from behind bars, including interviews with three women who corresponded with him (one of whom is the film’s director). Gripping from start to finish, its lurid portrait makes great use of Ramirez’s actual letters combined with a kind of gnarled stop motion.

Short Film Competition 8

Flamingo

Kawo Sushijojo (Non-Narrative, Taiwan, Macao)

When you make a film about your difficulty focusing and your low creative self-esteem, you run the risk of it broadcasting those shortcomings a little too effectively. This film is tolerable for the first two minutes or so, but then it goes on for another six.

4 North A

Howie Shia, Jordan Canning (Narrative, Canada)

A good portrayal of the unbearable cocktail of grief and boredom that accompanies attending to a dying parent’s hospital bed, though it doesn’t have much new or specific to say. Not just for its overwhelming sadness, it’s got strong Chris Ware vibes: its spare, emotionally evocative character designs and isometric interludes are beautiful.

FME 2019 ‘Trailer’

Martine Frossard (Commissioned, Canada, France)

A woman channels the ferocity of a leopard as she prepares to enter the boxing ring. Not sure what it’s promoting (another festival signal film?), but I like its Maira Kalman-esque watercolor style.

Pračka (Washing Machine)

Alexandra Májová (Narrative, Czech Republic)

My favorite design of any of this year’s films: a magnificent graphic mix of flat colors, thin lines, and skewed proportions. The unique premise, involving a washing machine seducing its owner, is great, and while its narrative could have been more satisfying, it still succeeded in making me laugh out loud multiple times.

Median Life and / or Death

Petteri Cederberg (Non-Narrative, Finland)

An absorbing mix of rapidly decaying hand-drawn figures and geometric patterns.

Kosmonaut (Cosmonaut)

Kaspar Jancis (Narrative, Estonia)

A senile former astronaut relives his celestial glory days in the noticeably more banal environs of his adult daughter’s home. Clever use of repetition and a convoluted causal chain.

Camp Saint Helene ‘Protector’

Benjamin Clement (Commissioned, USA)

A video for a downtempo psychedelic pop song, its high-contrast, monochromatic visuals seem to fade in and out of consciousness. It appears to use rotoscoping and heaps of digital processing, but still feels pretty organic, making dreamlike moving images out of what frequently looks like threadbare fabric.

Fruit

Ivan Li (Narrative, Canada)

Interesting that this dude closed out the program two years in a row. I hated his previous film, but despite the fact that this one—humanoid fruit having an intense orgy—is no less puerile, I appreciated its stylish commitment to complete lunacy.

Short Film Competition Stats

Lots of three-star ratings, as usual. A little more of the remainder landed in the lower range than the higher this year, but overall I think this is the most even spread I’ve had since I started keeping track a few years ago.

2199213119

Given the ratings spread above, it’s not hard to predict that the categories would all average out to three stars. As I was compiling the scores, I was rooting for the non-narrative category, since it’s inevitably an underdog and this year it had the two highest-scoring films (Urban Sphinx and Beyond Noh), but some of the category’s less compelling offerings balanced those out.

Category Film Count Avg. Rating
All 65
Narrative 21
Non-Narrative 13
Student 12
Commissioned 19

It was nice to see so many countries represented this year. Strong aggregate showings from the Czech Republic, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and Spain.

Country Film Count Avg. Rating
Czech Republic 2
Slovakia 1
Spain 2
Finland 1
Germany 2
Japan 5
Netherlands 3
Argentina 1
Austria 2
Belgium 1
Bulgaria 2
Estonia 3
France 10
Hungary 4
Israel 1
Portugal 1
Russia 4
South Korea 3
UK 4
USA 13
Canada 11
China 1
Croatia 1
Chile 1
Macao 1
Norway 2
Taiwan 2

Feature Film Competition

Bru & Boegie: The Movie

Mike Scott (South Africa)

After my first screening of OIAF 2020, I was a bit sad about how much of a diminished experience the at-home version of the festival is. Seeing esoteric animated films in a dark theater on a huge screen with an enthusiastic audience is a rare treat I look forward to every year. But my next screening, Bru & Boegie: The Movie, seemed tailor-made to demonstrate the benefits of viewing at home. Spoiler alert: 90 of the film’s 94 minutes are effectively a still image of one of the title characters meditating, which I was able to ascertain not by watching the whole thing, but by scrubbing ahead on the timeline after watching the first several minutes of it. I guess this film is an artifact of the juvenile school of thought that values virtually any subversion of expectations. Whether it’s intended as a prank, guerilla mindfulness, or both, its presence on YouTube is one thing, but including it as one of six feature films in competition at a festival? Really?

Circumstantial Pleasures

Lewis Klahr (USA)

The description of this film sounds right up my alley: “A collage contemplation of the contemporary zeitgeist with central attention placed on capitalism and it’s [sic] systems of distribution and the ecological crisis this has wrought.” But its visuals address its subjects in ways that are by turns too obvious and not obvious enough. When people are depicted, they’re either hyper-familiar powerbrokers (Trump, Putin, Zuckerberg) or unidentifiable comic book clippings. Whoever they are, their significance isn’t addressed so much as the mere fact of their existence. Otherwise much of what’s on display is cellophane, prescription drugs, gum wrappers, and other detritus, which I suppose express concern about consumerism and its environmental toll, but it’s too directionless to make any kind of real statement. The whole thing just feels like an unstructured brain dump, and maybe that’s the point, but just because unedited stream-of-consciousness work is a common avant-garde pose doesn’t always make it a valid one.

Zabij to i wyjedz z tego miasta (Kill It and Leave This Town)

Mariusz Wilczyński (Poland)

Twelve years in the making, this strange dive into the unsettling environs of Mariusz Wilczyński’s memories is rendered in scratchy ink drawings on dark stained backgrounds. Occasionally reminiscent of Quentin Blake’s illustration work with Roald Dahl, the look sometimes manages to be both bleak and whimsical at the same time, which suits the film’s meandering perspective: lucid observations of passenger train interactions and his mother’s death are juxtaposed with ominous and bewildering warnings from severed heads and talking animals. It’s not a fun ride, but it’s definitely an interesting one.

Non-Competition Highlights

I only managed to catch two non-competition screenings this year: the World Panorama, and An Almost Incredible story, a retrospective of Elbert Tuganov’s Estonian films spanning the late ’50s to the mid ’70s. Nothing really grabbed me in the latter, though it’s always interesting to see the ways politics seeped into Soviet-era films, for better or worse. As for the World Panorama, I’ve never been clear on how it’s curated, but I gather it’s a best-of-the-rest for the films that didn’t make it into competition. There was one clear standout:

Angry Dogs

Shaun Clark (UK)

Two favorite pastimes of dogs—barking at inconsequential things and sleeping—are captured here with delightful simplicity. The spare scribbles that illustrate the dogs are impossibly great and the comic timing and sound are pitch perfect.