The image conveyed by the title Animation Express is of a train barrelling along the tracks. That's appropriate. Even apart from the notion of a public agency operating at full tilt, at least three of the attractions in this Canadian collection of recent National Film Board cartoons deal directly with trains.
Runaway (2009), from Cordell Barker, best known for his wonderful Oscar-nominated short The Cat Came Back , is a traditionally animated tale of a runaway train with dignitaries and partygoers scrambling to keep it on the rails by ripping up the cars to feed the furnace. (Runaway trains are catnip to animators; see The Polar Express and the 2005 film Hoodwinked .) The Oscar-nominated Madame Tutli-Putli (2007), a stop-motion fever dream from Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, is a puzzling but fascinating tale of a woman embarking with all her worldly goods onto a train where men play chess on the overhead rack and menace is everywhere apparent. In Kevin Langdale's traditionally animated Engine 371 (2007), the toy figures that come with a homeowner's train set develop a mind of their own.
Those who still think of NFB animation in terms of visionary pioneer Norman McLaren may be surprised that in the past five years the agency has produced or co-produced so many intriguing works by so many talented animators.
Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, the board is clearly inclined to boast. (See nfb.ca/getanimated.) Not only will it issue 39 cartoons next week on a Blu-ray disc of Animation Express , but it will stage free public screenings of its animated works until Oct. 31 in various spots across Canada, with presentations in a few cities by Barker and Chris Landreth.
Landreth's extraordinary computer-animated film Ryan (2004), about the travails of former NFB animator Ryan Larkin, won an Oscar and is included on the Blu-ray set. Ryan is not, however, included on the alternative two-disc DVD set, which contains only 26 of the cartoons. (The NFB says it wanted to make its first foray into Blu-ray "special.")
The big incentives to choose the Blu-ray are Ryan and Torill Kove's The Danish Poet (2006), a charming tale of happenstance, true love, letters gone astray and death by falling cow.
Among the gems common to both sets is Landreth's The Spine (2009), which, like Ryan , is a computer-animated tale of wounded souls with physical damage (jigsaw-puzzle faces, strips dangling from foreheads) standing in for psychic damage. It starts with a therapy group, and zeroes in on a bickering couple (voiced by Gordon Pinsent and Alberta Watson) whose relationship turns out to have been very complicated. Claude Cloutier's Sleeping Betty (2007), which won a Genie award, is a funny riff on Sleeping Beauty that combines images reminiscent of 19th-century illustration with the devil-may-care inventiveness of a Droopy cartoon. The prince who scrambles to reach the sleeping princess is a dead ringer for Prince Charles.
The rest of the films run the gamut from fresh and exciting to worthy but unmemorable and, in a couple of cases, sort of dumb. Among the highlights: Patrick Bouchard's Subservience (2007), a stop-motion tale of class presumptions set in the desolate world of Waiting for Godot ; and Elizabeth Hobbs's The True Story of Sawney Beane (2005, Blu-ray only), whose animation resembles ashes sifted into images, and whose rhyming narrative invokes the shivery horror of the darkest Scottish lament.