`THE 24th International Tournee of Animation'' is the latest edition of what may be the best-known annual cartoonfest in the world. It began as a touring exhibition in the mid-1960s and changed in 1986 from a museum-oriented show to a compilation program shown in regular movie theaters.
Operating as a cooperative venture that returns half of its profits to the filmmakers who create its offerings, it has become a must-see event for the legion of cartoon fans who don't think a movie needs live action - or a running time of more than a few minutes - to be as worthwhile as a Hollywood blockbuster.
This year's Tournee in New York has some impressive names in its credits. One is magazine cartoonist Gahan Wilson, whose ``Diner'' tells the darkly comic tale of a macabre eatery with monsters for employees and victims for customers.
Another is Paul Tippett, who worked on the special effects for ``Jurassic Park'' with Steven Spielberg and company. He delves into similar territory in his ``Prehistoric Beast,'' shown here in excerpted form.
There's also Paul Berry, a lead animator for ``The Nightmare Before Christmas'' and maker of ``The Sandman,'' which has been nominated for an Academy Award notwithstanding its gruesome horror-film elements. And don't overlook the California Raisins, the brainchild of animator Will Vinton's studio, who get a mini-tribute at the end of the Tournee.
Interestingly, these major cartoon-world figures don't contribute the most interesting work to the Tournee lineup.
Wilson's grim comedy gets repetitious after the first few gags, while Tippett's dinosaur extravaganza is more showy than stirring. Ditto for ``The Sandman'' until its hair-raising climax, and even Vinton's virtuosic Claymation images - molded from clay, an excellent medium for cartoon artistry - look sadly flat in the video-transfer form used by the Tournee. But the madly inventive item called ``Mr. Resistor'' makes a potent impression despite everything.
Happily, some unexpected winners compensate for the disappointments. ``The Man Who Yelled,'' by Mo Willems, is a funny vignette about the filmmaker's own eagerness to tell us a story about - well, a man who yelled. ``The Billy Nayer Show,'' made in the lifelike ``rotoscope'' technique by performance artists Cory McAbee and Bobby Lurie, presents a lounge-singing routine that manages to be amusing and inexplicable at the same time. ``Get a Haircut'' is Mike Smith's lively cartoon-accompaniment to a recent George Thorogood song.
And the provocative ``I Think I Was an Alcoholic'' is John Cahallan's unexpectedly hilarious look at the deadly serious subject of overcoming alcohol abuse.
Inventive and outrageous in almost every frame, it's a strong reminder that the Tournee is a cartoon show for grown-ups, not children.
Also on the program is the exuberant ``We Love It,'' by Vincent Cafarelli and Candy Kugel, an on-target satire of Hollywood hypocrisy.
``The Stain'' is a surrealistic fable of family life by Marjut Rimminen and Christine Roche, while ``Little Wolf'' gives An Vrombaut's view of animals and the world of nature. ``The Square of Light'' is Claude Luyet's arty look at prizefighting. ``Words, Words, Words'' is Michaela Pavlatova's parody of pointless social chatter. ``The Ride to the Abyss'' is Georges Schwizgebel's ambitious but ultimately aimless meditation on Berlioz's musical classic, ``The Damnation of Faust.''
Entries in this Tournee come from Britain, Switzerland, and former Czechoslovakia, as well as the United States, which contributed more than half the program.
It's an uneven show, but some of its components are splendid on their own ornery terms - and there's always the chance that some offering will take on a life of its own in the future, considering that filmmaker Tim Burton and ``Beavis and Butt-Head'' creator Mike Judge had early work in previous Tournee editions.
In any event, spectators have the comforting thought that if an offering lets them down, another one will push it off the screen in just a few minutes.
* ``The 24th International Tournee of Animation'' is not rated. Some items have elements of sex, violence, and scatological humor.