What's in the water here that makes Portland such a popular breeding ground for the artists who create many of the cartoon characters that invade our everyday lives? OK, maybe it isn't the water; maybe it's the fact that one of the nation's leading animation centers--Will Vinton Studios--is located here. Whatever the reason, some of the best animation around can be found in our own back yard.

Starting this week, the Clinton Street Theatre will present an Animation Festival featuring work by many local artists. The result is a two-program series with more than 30 animated and live-action shorts. We're not talking about the Claymation California Raisins or the now-defunct The PJs or any of the other mainstream stuff to come out of Vinton Studios--that stuff is great. What we're talking about is what many of the artists who have worked at Vinton or the smaller Flying Rhinoceros Studios have put together. Some of the work, like Jean Poulot's When the Stars Came Out, are part of Vinton's Walkabout Program, which encourages animators to work on their own projects in between dancing-raisin commercials. Other pieces, like Pete List's stop-motion Marilyn Manson video for The Astonishing Panorama of End Times, comes from work he did at Celebrity Death Match.

Some of the shorts, such as Cameron Gray's Louis Armstrong Tribute, feature exactly what you'd expect to see coming from Will Vinton Studios--instantly recognizable clay figures. In fact, the traditional Vinton-style Claymation abounds in such shorts as Mike Johnson's Devil Went Down to Georgia and Gray's Freak on a Leash, which marry pop music with animation by bringing songs by the Charlie Daniels Band and Korn to stop-motion life.

But the animation festival has more than clay creations to offer. Surrealism can be found in the work of Laura Di Trapani, whose four works, including Artist in Residence and Crossties, constitute the more experimental of both programs, taking a nontraditional approach to animated storytelling that involves mixed media. Di Trapani's work is not the only piece to venture into the experimental realm. With its self-explanatory title, Dielle Alexandre's Dreams of a Housecat--one of the few live-action pieces--takes its audience into a chaotic feline consciousness.

The rest of the festival is made up of an interesting mix of both animation and live-action shorts. Shaun Reimer's Who's Babysitting Who?--a traditional bit of 2-D cartoon work--is something you might find in Spike & Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation. Suzanne Twining's Put on a Happy Face is a somewhat creepy, child's-eye view of the insincere emotional masks people often wear, while The Metamorphosis, Charlie Ramos' computer-animated adaptation of Franz Kafka's story, is one the festival's bright moments.

Meanwhile, in a slightly more mainstream vein comes the wacky, overtly anti-Disney Shrek, based on the storybook by William Steig and animated by the team that brought us Antz. Mike Myers lends his voice to the film's title character, a grumpy ogre who's about to become a hero. Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow), a thinly veiled caricature of Disney CEO Michael Eisner, is the evil ruler of a magic kingdom who banishes all fairytale characters to a remote swamp--the home of Shrek. Ill-tempered and anti-social, Shrek wants his swamp for himself, so he makes a bargain with Farquaad: The evil prince will relocate Shrek's unwanted neighbors outside the swamp, if the ogre will rescue the beautiful Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a dragon for him. Shrek embarks on his adventure with the pesky talking Donkey (Eddie Murphy), but things become complicated for our hero when he falls for Fiona.

In Shrek's own words, "Ogres are like onions; they have many layers." Those multiple layers are brought to life by Myers' vocal performance--perhaps the best such role since Woody Allen's and Sylvester Stallone's in Antz. But Myers is not alone in his inspired performance. Murphy's motor-mouth Donkey features the comedian's best work in a long time.

Like the best children's films, Shrek holds an equal amount of appeal for adults--if not more. Reminiscent of Jay Ward's Fractured Fairy Tales from the old Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, Shrek is more likely to make grown-ups laugh than the youngsters in the crowd. Possessing a similar charm to The Princess Bride, it's a film for the hopelessly romantic who cringe at traditional love stories.

Clinton Street Animation Festival

Clinton Street Theatre, 2522 SE Clinton St., 238-8899. Friday- Thursday, May 18-24. $6 per program.

The Clinton Street Animation Festival consists of two programs. Program 1 screens at 7 pm, program 2 at 9 pm. There is separate admission for each program.


Rated PG Opens Friday, May 18.