Saturday, March 24, 2012

Best Animated Short - 2002

We have come to 2002. In many ways this was the most memorable Oscar ceremony, even more so than 1997, the first one I saw. It's got Michael Moore blasting the Bush administration while accepting the Best Documentary Feature Oscar for Bowling for Columbine. It's got Eminem winning the Best Original Song Oscar for Lose Yourself in 8 Mile without even performing it. It's got Adrien Brody laying one on Halle Berry after becoming the youngest Best Actor winner for The Pianist. Most importantly, it featured the one award that made me forever loyal to the Academy Awards: Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (aka Spirited Away) winning Best Animated Feature.

A little history: Spirited Away was instantly my favorite film after I saw it for the first time in summer of 2002. I fell in love with the terrific storyline, the amazing visuals, the memorable characters, and the beautiful music. I watched it again and again. I had seen it close to twenty times by the time it was nominated for the Academy Awards, alongside Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Treasure Planet. They were four fine films, but in no way did they match up with the story or scope of Spirited Away. It should be an easy win, but I was nervous from the start. Spirited Away was one of three nominees that year distributed by Disney, and of the three it was the one that made the least splash in American theaters. They essentially treated it like an art house movie. I was nervous that they would put most of their campaigning power behind Lilo & Stitch, their first in-house success since Tarzan. Moreover, Spirited Away is not a very accessible tale to Americans, which is probably why Disney kept it art-house in the first place. It was essentially set in a bathhouse for spirits. The concept of bathhouses is uncommon in America, and the idea of multiple spirits is downright blasphemous. The Oscar voters have traditionally been white, male, and middle aged, and they don't seem like the people that's too keen about a Japanese tale dealing with extremely Japanese beliefs. I was convinced that they would spur Spirited Away and give the Oscar to another inferior film, like Lilo & Stitch or Ice Age.

Well, Oscar night came around, and I sat there to watch as I had done every year since the 1997 ceremony. I had told myself that if Spirited Away loses Best Animated Feature, then I'll turn the TV off and never follow the Oscars again. Cameron Diaz came out to present the first category, which naturally turned out to be Best Animated Feature. She gave a meaningless introduction, saying "Once upon a time, parents took their children to see animated pictures. Today's level of animation had reached such a level of sophistication that the children take their parents." It was laughably nonsensical, but I was too nervous to laugh. She read the nominees (Spirited Away received some applause, which was a good sign), and then..."And the Oscar goes to..." I was under so much pressure at that moment that I could swear that I was giving myself a stroke. When she read "Spirited Away," I breathed a sign of relief and had a smile so wide that my cheeks hurt. My favorite film of all time had now won an Oscar. It was without a doubt my favorite Oscar moment in almost fifteen years of watching the Oscars. With the most important award of the night out of the way, I was able to sit back and enjoy the show. Later my Statistics teacher told me that he was the only person at his Oscar party to predict Spirited Away, since I wouldn't shut up about it.

Sorry, no embedding

I had promised myself that if Spirited Away lost, I would forsake the Oscars, but conversely, if it wins, I will be forever indebted. I learned to shake off other awards I disagreed with by reminding myself that at least Spirited Away won the Oscar. Sure, I may not always be happy (I think of myself like Yao trying to contain his anger while cradled by Chien Po in Mulan), but I get over it. It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp beat In the Deep for Best Original Song? That sucks, but at least Spirited Away won the Oscar. Crash beat Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture? That's nuts, but at least Spirited Away won the Oscar. Tom Hooper beat David Fincher for Best Director? That blows, but at least Spirited Away won the Oscar. A Morning Stroll is likely going to beat Wild Life, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, and La Luna? That's no good, but at least Spirited Away won the Oscar.

Whew...Best Animated Short. The presentation of Best Animated Short that year was also quite memorable. That was the year a gorgeous Jennifer Garner presented the award alongside a CGI Mickey Mouse. I've seen animated characters present the award all by themselves, but this is the first time a real celebrity presents alongside an animated character. I always wondered what that would be like for the people watching in the theater. Would Mickey Mouse have been projected as a hologram? Or would they see nothing but hear Wayne Allwine's voice instead? And somebody would have to animated the characters along with all of their jokes, not to mention the voice actors reading the lines. Would they get classified info about the winners beforehand? Or are the voice actors present and reading the lines live? Mystery desu. Anyways, that was a good trip through memory lane. Now it's time to review the films that Jennifer Garner and Mickey Mouse read.

Atama-yama (Mt. Head)
Once upon a time, there was a miserly hoarder who refused to waste anything, for fear that he would have to spend money to buy something. One day he notices some leaves sprouting out of his head. He remembers a time when he picked cherries off the ground and ate them for his meal. He decided it was a waste to toss the pits, and ate those as well. Back in the present, he snips off the leaves. He cuts the plant, but it kept coming back. Finally he just gave up. Eventually the plant grows up to become a cherry tree, and when spring arrives crowds of people arrive at the tree to see the cherry blossoms. He tears the tree out, but things only gets worse from there. What's the poor guy to do? This trippy piece of animation is the first Japanese anime film to be nominated for Best Animated Short. The animation is not done in the traditional anime style, done using a coarser style more reminiscent of traditional Japanese art. The story is also extremely Japanese. It's a combination of the rakugo and roukyoku style, both of which a feature storyteller narrating or singing a comical story, only in this case the events of the story is depicted on film. And it's quite a comical tale, if you can get over the mindf^_^-ness of the story. The inanity of the action is quite funny in and of itself, but the real pleasure is the narration of the famous roukyoku singer and shamisen* player Takeharu Kunimoto. His vocals and shamisen playing really carry the film.

*The Shamisen is the stringed instrument that Hitmonlee and Electabuzz play in Riddle Me This.

The Chubbchubbs!
Once upon a time, an alien named Meeper who works as a lowly janitor an intergalactical pub wants nothing more than to be a singer. The problem is, he can't sing, and he's disrupting the person who can. He is given the boot, but is told by a dying Jar Jar Binks that the Chubb-Chubbs are coming. He sees a ramping army arrive and tries to warn the pub, failing miserably, but a more competent alien passes the message, leading to a mass exodus. Meeper is left behind, where he sees a group of cute little chicks. He hides the chicks but is face to face with the murderous aliens. He attempts to calm the aliens with his singing, but will that make things worse? Can he protect those chicks? The pre-release animated short was out of style for a while in the 1980s and 1990s, but it's come back in recent years. The quality is generally not at the same level as independent animation, but there's some gems from time to time. This was one of those relatively uncommon non-Pixar gems. It pays homage to science fiction films and 1960s-70s music. The film features several cameos of famous characters from space-based films, and it's interesting to try to catch them. The film is also quite funny, which I suppose it has to be to set the mood for Like Mike and Stuart Little 2. The only problem is that Meeper is not much of a main character. He's an incompetent and selfish prick. My sisters find him so annoying that they refuse to watch the film, but I think that the rest of the film makes up for it. Besides, most of the film is him making a fool of himself. The animation is a mixed bag. The character animation is good but rather simple, while the backgrounds are downright sparse. It's not the most complicated or thoughtful short, but it's enjoyable.

Katedra (The Cathedral) 
Once upon a time, a man in a dying world stands before a sinister-looking cathedral. He ventures inside, and sees living creatures living inside the walls. When he gets to the other side, he stands and admires the giant red planet blocking the sun for a good long while before shit happens. This film, by Polish animator Tomek Baginski, is absolutely gorgeous. The modeling is crisp, and the art direction is fantastic. You can practically feel the suppressive environment of the world, or the chill in the mysterious cathedral. The character animation is terrific as well. The main character may be ugly, but at least he's well animated, with realistic features that stop just short of crossing the uncanny valley. The music is also good, with a choral feel inside the cathedral that turns into a thrilling techno beat at the climax. The production values is all fine and dandy, but there is one fatal flaw. What the eff is going on in this short? Perhaps it was a deliberate ploy to add to the sense of mystery, but that's not exactly satisfying for this film. Even Destino a year later made more sense, and that was just a surrealistic acid trip from the mind of Salvador Dali. And it's not like Baginski makes confusing works that just make you want to wrack your brain. His 2009 film The Kinematograph was a straightforward film that kept the beauty of Katedra. Alas, this was one film that left me in the cold.

Mike's New Car 
Once upon a time, in the world of the Monsters, Mike Wazowski shows off his brand new car to his best friend "Sulley" Sullivan. He takes Sully out for a drive. The problem is, neither he nor Sully know a thing about how to work all of its special features. Hilarity ensues. Monsters Inc. remains one of the top Pixar films, a hilarious, energetic film with a touching story. One of the best things about the film is the relationship between Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sulley (voiced by John Goodman). The song about their relationship (If I Didn't Have You) even won Randy Newman an Oscar. Pixar brought the duo back with this short, but it doesn't quite work out. Monsters Inc. worked because of their snappy dialogue and mutual trust. Mike's New Car is just two minutes of slapstick comedy with Mike getting the brunt of the abuse. Even at two minutes it might be too long. It's somewhat funny at first, but by the end you're like "Come on, let's get this over with." And then it ends. The animation and voice acting is the A+ stuff you come to expect from Pixar, but the premise just doesn't feel strong enough. I guess you can call it an allegory on the consumer culture and the need to constantly upgrade, but that doesn't really rescue it from being merely average. Nevertheless this short started a new trend with Pixar: making new shorts featuring characters from existing films. They've done that with every film since except Finding Nemo.

Das Rad (Rocks) 
Once upon a time, two rock beings named Kew and Hew and lived on the side of a cliff. Hew keeps complaining about the moss growing on him, while Kew torments a fellow rock creature before playing around with a circular rock. The thing is that the rock beings are incredibly slow moving, so that while they're having their conversation the world around them keeps going by at breakneck speed. Over the next thousands of years, the duo takes interest in the civilization of animals that grow around them, to the point where their very existence is threatened. What is to become of Hew and Kew? This darkly comic allegorical film takes an interesting concept and runs with it. It comments on the rapid expansion of human culture by seeing it through the eyes of two slow-moving rock beings. The film usually runs at rock speed while Hew and Kew ham it up, but occasionally slows to human speed as humans come by and almost interact with the main characters. It's a very clever idea that is well executed, although the lack of any real interaction with the humans during the slower moments is somewhat of a letdown and makes you wonder why they have the slower moments in the first place. Perhaps that's why the US title is Rocks, even though the German title translates to The Wheel. They merely mention that the wheel enables human progress, but doesn't do much else. Nevertheless, the film is very effective. The two rock beings are very appealing characters, and the climax is quite excellent. The animation is a mix of stop motion animation and puppetry and is interesting to look at. The music is quite catchy as well. It's overall a solid work from Germany.

I must confess, back when I didn't care about the Best Animated Short category and was spending most of my time worrying about the Best Animated Feature category, I assumed that Mike's New Car would take the prize, just because it's Pixar. Little did I know that Mike's New Car wasn't very good (relatively), and that this would the first year the Academy began scorning Pixar in the Animated Short category. Mike's New Car would be the first of seven consecutive Pixar films that fell short in the shorts category. The Chubbchubbs ended up taking home the Oscar, which was kind of a weird choice. It was an enjoyable film, but I didn't think it was quite as good as Das Rad or even Atama-yama. Yet the Academy went for the studio film over the independent films. I don't agree with it, but I can live with it. After all, Spirited Away won the Oscar! :)

My personal rankings (by quality)
Das Rad > Atama-yama > The Chubbchubbs > Katedra > Mike's New Car

My personal rankings (by preference)
Das Rad > Atama-yama > The Chubbchubbs > Mike's New Car > Katedra

1 comment:

  1. Nevertheless this short started a new trend with Pixar: making new shorts featuring characters from existing films. They've done that with every film since except Finding Nemo.

    Sure did. *yawn*

    I decided to stop and watch Das Rad after reading about it here since these kind of films perk me a bit. They were certainly showing the pacing of the rocks as if a year goes by in a second for them, with humanity's rise seeming to go by very swiftly. I certainly got a kick out of the end of the film (which seems bleak to us, but to nature is just another blip on the road of time).

    I didn't care for the Chubbchubbs, period! Either Atama-Yama or Das Rad should've won that year.