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This Texas Theatre Cartoon Film Series Isn’t for Kids—or the Faint of Heart

Suspended Animation celebrates some of the most insane, twisted, and interesting works of animators like Don Hertzfeldt and Ralph Bakshi.
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The Suspended Animation show, hosted and curated by Chris Gardner, brings unusual, horrifying and beautiful works of animated film every month to the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff. Courtesy of Chris Gardner

Like a lot of kids growing up in the age of the Saturday morning cartoons, Chris Gardner loved animated movies and shows. Then one fateful day, his dad took him to a screening of Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Animation Festival. Curated by Craig “Spike” Decker and Mike Gribble, the long-running, traveling cartoon show went to theaters all around the country, showing animated shorts that couldn’t make it past network TV focus groups. Gardner says his dad didn’t know the show wasn’t meant for kids. 

“He thought it was just gonna be some weird animation,” Gardner says. “Boy, was he wrong.” 

Spike & Mike’s also gave audiences their first looks at the work of future icons. It introduced the world to Mike Judge, whose “Frog Baseball” short launched Beavis and Butt-Head. It also showcased Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the guys behind the viral, foul-mouthed holiday short “The Spirit of Christmas” that inspired their Comedy Central hit, South Park.

“It started this love affair of cartoons going way beyond Saturday morning,” Gardner says. “I didn’t know cartoons could be dark or scary or sad.” 

The show also inspired Gardner’s undying love for animation and led to the creation of Suspended Animation, his monthly cult classic cartoon screening series at the Texas Theatre. Launched last August, the series looks at the works of animators like Bill Plympton and Jan Švankmajer, who pushed the stylist boundaries of the medium to produce dark and twisted images that evoke more than just childish laughter.  

Gardner says the idea for Suspended Animation came to life during the Oak Cliff movie house’s David Lynch film retrospective last summer. He told his idea to Texas Theatre’s creative director, Jason Reimer, who gave him the green light to use the space for his monthly cartoon screenings. 

“That’s one of the wonderful things about working here,” Gardner says. “If you have an idea and you know what’s gonna work, they aren’t afraid to take risks. They’ve also been open to my ideas and let me just run with it.” 

The series launched with 1973’s Fantastic Planet August 24, 2023, and has since screened animations like The Tune and shorts by Don Hertzfeldt. The shocked reactions from people who haven’t seen or aren’t familiar with the world of short-form animation are an inevitable, important part of the experience. Gardner says he looks forward to each new show because he’s bound to see more than a few faces twisting in horror and confusion at the screen. 

“I like that feeling of, ‘Oh, are we trapped in here with this guy?’” Gardner says. “’Are we safe?’ And you’re safe. It’s like a haunted house.” 

Take, for instance, Suspended Animation’s September screening of the 1992 animated feature Cool WorldThe film stars Gabriel Byrne as an animator who gets drawn (no pun intended) into his own cartoon world, creating palpable sexual tension with a blond cartoon sexpot named Hollie Would, played by Kim Basinger. The cartoons were designed for the big screen by Fritz the Cat creator Ralph Bakshi. 

“Again, my dad took me to see that,” Gardner says. “I don’t think he was paying attention. He was, like I am, a big Ralph Bakshi fan. We both loved Wizardsbut [Cool World] was one of the movies that opened me up to the idea of you can deal with dark subject matter in a cartoon and mix a lot of media in it.” 

Cool World bombed both at the box office and with critics. It arrived on the heels of the groundbreaking and surreal cartoon juggernaut Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and took a very adult turn with its characters. The rules of Cool World, enforced by a cop named Frank Harris played by Brad Pitt, forbid noids (humans) and doodles (toons, as Roger Rabbit’s world calls them) from having sex with each other since one turns into the other. 

Cool World doesn’t quite have the bona fides, but it’s still a fun movie,” Gardner says. “It was always described to me as the horny Roger Rabbit.” 

Animated films aren’t just limited to the comedy genre. For Halloween, Gardner screened the eyebrow-raising, stop-motion adventure Alice, released in 1988 by Švankmajer, which retells Lewis Carroll’s surrealist fairytale in truly bizarre ways. 

“Everything’s grimy,” Gardner says. “Everything’s very stained and ugly and very trashy. All of the little critters are [taxidermized] animals. A lot of it is just raw meat. He animated steaks.” 

In the five months since it began, Gardner’s Suspended Animation has been growing a steady audience of people who love being challenged on a sensory level, along with a healthy dose of people who don’t know the journey they’re about to take. He’s got plans for future shows, like revisiting more of Bakshi’s works, including his 1977 fantasy adventure art piece Wizards, or doing a Brothers Quay night “for the depressed people out there.” 

One of his most ambitious ideas is showing the downright horrifying Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical AdventureIf you’ve seen it, you know why it’s ambitious. 

“It’s a very, very ‘kids’ movie, but it’s disturbing to look at,” Gardner says. “I assume most of my audience is on drugs, so I’m thinking how can I turn that on them halfway through?” 

See the next Suspended Animation screening of award-winning special effects artist and director Phil Tippet’s stop motion, underworld horror adventure “Mad God” on January 20.

Author

Danny Gallagher

Danny Gallagher

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