Tall 'Toons

For decades the ultimate "head movies" included Disney's animated Fantasia and Stanley Kubrick's special effects­laden 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it's only fitting that cinematic psychedelia be dramatically brought up to date for the brave new world of the 21st Century -- via computer, of course.

The recipe sounds simple: Start with traditional cell-based animation, use computer-based technology to render the imagery in 3-D, and, finally, transfer it all into IMAX format so that the images loom as large as a five-story building and the sound washes over the listener like a tidal wave.

The first dish concocted with this blend of technology is Cyberworld 3D, a sort of virtual anthology exploring the possibilities of the hybrid medium. Our guide for the roughly 48-minute expedition is Phig (voiced by Jenna Elfman of TV's Dharma and Greg), a cheeky character so cyber-slim she makes Ally McBeal seem Rubenesque.

With the vividly detailed Galleria Animonica as our home base, Phig leads us into the eight segments that make up Cyberworld. "KraKKen: Adventure of Future Ocean," for instance, is a three-minute clip from a short film speculating on animal evolution, with such amazingly realistic creatures as "sea-lizards," "jellyfish-birds," and the title animals (variations on sea lions) floating through a watery landscape.

"Liberation" is a modified version of the 1994 Pet Shop Boys music video with new material added and its original, surreal effects rerendered in 3-D. A segment from the 1998 animated feature Antz similarly reconfigures a chunk of that film's bar sequence, which features worker ant Z-4195 (voiced by Woody Allen) and soldier ant Weaver (Sylvester Stallone) entertaining romantic fantasies about the regal Princess Bala (Sharon Stone).

The final segment is an excerpt from "Homer3," an episode of The Simpsons. Here we see Homer Simpson (followed later by Bart) step from his familiar two-dimensional TV world into a 3-D environment that totally baffles him.

Interspersed among the segments are the continuing adventures of Phig as she makes her way through the superfuturistic Galleria Animonica. These bits mostly involve her attempts to contain the mischievous Cyber Critters, a trio of obnoxious creatures called Buzzed, Wired, and Frazzled, who are inadvertently destroying the computer code that makes their world possible. Think of them as cutesy computer viruses run amok or as an analogy for humanity's treatment of the earth.

What distinguishes animated IMAX 3-D from live-action IMAX 3-D is that the latter tends to direct our attention to the center of the screen, so that we're looking into a sort of tunnel with vaguely defined edges. The animated medium takes advantage of the whole frame to create the illusion of a space that, ironically, seems even more realistic than live action: Everywhere you look, the details are equally sharp and in-focus, and that distinction makes Cyberworld eye candy of the most delicious sort.

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Michael Mills