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By Richard von Busack May 8, 2017
The wittiest protest sign Instagrammed during the recent Science March: "Every disaster movie begins with a scientist being ignored." Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), the hero of Dash Shaw's animated film My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, is cast by fate to be the person in the disaster movie whose warning goes unheeded.
The hard-hitting reporter from the Tides High Gazette, the Xeroxed student newspaper, is commencing his sophomore year. The Gazette's editor Verti (Maya Rudolph) is trying to split up the friendship between Dash and his best pal, Assaf (Reggie Watts)--even though Dash had been predicting great things for his writing partner in that interior monologue every adolescent has going inside their heads: "This is going to be a big year for our hero and his sidekick!" Verti is trying to get Assaf for herself, under the cover of writing a dual restaurant review: "Don't worry, I'll bring a thesaurus... I've made a list of synonyms for 'delicious.'"
Upset, Dash turns his attention to the new school auditorium and the apparent forged signature on the inspection permit. The place is dangerously unsound￢ﾀﾔbuilt on a precarious cliff over the ocean and ready to collapse at the first small temblor. It strikes, and 900 students are soon floating off to sea. Enraged by spilled blood transfusion bags from the nurse's office, man-eating sharks pick off the kind of kids who no one can seem to remember and no one will miss. Meanwhile, Dash, Assaf, Verti, and their new nodding acquaintance Mary (voiced by Lena Dunham) make the torturous trip up to the higher levels, the inner sanctum where the seniors are cowering.
The school's crisis produces a hero￢ﾀﾔLunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon), a wise woman with a cross-hatched hair net and a tragic back story. She bucks the kids up, nurses a jellyfish sting by boiling the stung kid's elbow, and kung-fus the school's bullies when they try to push the bad situation into anarchy. (It's touch and go: bananas fly during a food fight, victims are mercilessly dutch-rubbed, and, unseen by the rioters, a couple making out under a table.) As in Rian Johnson's Brick and TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the trick here is to make the seemingly lethal pain of high school actually lethal.
It's a veritable Poseidon Adventure for a new century. The school may be wet, but Shaw's writing style is dry, having the tang of brilliant, bored high school kid comedy to them. He's made the art simple and then even simpler; certain images (as in a drawing of a Scout's tent in the forest) that Shaw can draw well, and that he's taking up the simple style of sketches made during school entrapment. Some of the passages are even illustrated on notebook paper, as if scribbled during an algebra class. Shaw likes cross-sections; a halved school bus rolling down the road, the inside of an asthmatic's lung, the alveoli shrinking... or dwindling to nothingness, when one victim drowns and turns into an x-eyed corpse.
Shaw works 2D, in the traditional celluloid and gouache style. Per the innovative UPA animation of the 1950s, the transparent plastic is laid over wallpaper sample style pattern fields, or bright colored construction paper. He sums up the life aquatic with watercolor resist over crayon, and psychedelic light shows. The figures move in a two-step dance of throbbing movement seen in Bill Plympton as well as today's neo-UPA-ists, such as Don Hertzfeldt. That 2D throb of today's funky hand drawn animation is as common as the metronome-timed bounce was in 1930s cartoons.
With amusing nonchalance, the graphic novelist turned animator keeps it small and funny. As a movie, it's close to John Prine's ballad of small-time disaster, "The Bottomless Lake," about the car plunge of a nuclear family. Tracing the outline of a disaster movie, as Shaw does, picks up the central messages of the genre: there is no such thing as a tragedy that isn't the result of corner-cutting. Be stalwart, but also be nice. And the immutable wheel of fortune renders today's shiniest and most important pig into tomorrow's bacon.