Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Best Animated Short - 2009
The major Oscar storyline that year is the race between box office champ Avatar and critics/guilds darling The Hurt Locker with Inglourious Basterds hanging in the wings as a dark horse. To be honest, I thought that was more interesting. This list of nominees is kind of disappointing. One thing about having the shortlist is that it reveals the films the Academy COULD have nominated but didn't, and frankly the list of snubs are more interesting than the list of nominees. For example, the Academy passed on Pixar's Partly Cloudy. I know that Pixar's shorts haven't been as good as their feature films (a fact evident in the fact only three of their films have won despite nine nominations), but I felt certain it would get a nomination, even if I didn't like it much. The Academy also passed on films by two prior nominees: Cordell Barker's Runaway and Tomek's Baginski's The Kinematograph.* Finally, the most unforgiveable snub was that of Australia's The Cat Piano, a fine film you can still see on their website (and I definitely encourage you to watch it), and my favorite of the films I've seen on the shortlist. Heck, had it gotten nominated it would have been among my favorite nominees. Essentially, it's one of my favorite short films.
*Barker was previously nominated for The Cat Came Back (1988) and Strange Invaders (2001). Baginski was nominated for Katedra (2002).
Anyways, I digress. While the nominees are not ideal, I don't want to detract you from seeing them. So let's move on to the reviews.
French Roast is a simple little story about a man who went to a cafe for a drink of coffee. He refuses to give money to a homeless man, but because of that he didn't realize that he had forgotten his wallet until he gets the check. He keeps ordering coffee while trying to figure out what to do, but that makes things worse. A solution seems evident when a little old lady next to him turns out to be rich beyond his wildest dreams, but things don't quite turn out the way he expected.
French Roast was one of only two nominees that I correctly predicted. The computer animation is extremely simple, especially since we're used to seeing the vibrant worlds and character design of Pixar, Dreamworks, and even Blue Sky Studios. Yet the quality of the storytelling more than makes up for its weakness. I've seen one reviewer call the film sincere, and that's probably the best way to describe it. The makers knew exactly what they wanted to convey, and they tell it without any extra fluff. The filmmaking also helps to complement the story. The camera is mostly static, but the cafe is designed to have a giant mirror that lets you see the world outside of the restaurant. This set-up allows for limited camera movement, giving viewers a more complete picture of what's going on in the world. It's a brilliant achievement in storyboarding, and it leaves a satisfying taste in at least this particular viewer.
Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty
Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty is a lot like French Roast in that it has one story to tell, and it does it efficiently and effectively. The story was written by a comedienne, and as expected the script constantly targets your "funny bone." Jokes are fast and furious, and the conclusion is the most satisfying one of all. The animation also serves the storyline well. There is a 3D world inhabited by Granny and her unfortunate grandchild, as well as a 2D world within the story. The juxtaposition augments the story-within-a-story effect, and the funky character designs add to the comedic effect. Like French Roast, what ultimately brings down Granny O'Grimm is that while it tells its story well, the story just doesn't really have much substance, even when compared to films whose focus is comedy. So while it's good for a laugh every so often, it just doesn't have the powerful lasting impact of some of the greats. (The Critic, anyone?)
The Lady and the Reaper (La Dama y la Muerte)
This macabre little short from Spain features an interplay between three characters with three different goals. There is an old lady who wants nothing more than to joint her late husband in the world beyond. The Grim Reaper is eager for another soul. However, there is also an arrogant young doctor (and his team of bimbo-ish nurses) who wants to add to his list of accomplishments. The three forces collide in a madcap and slapstrick adventure.
Just like how there are three characters at play in The Lady and the Reaper, there are three comparisons I can make with this movie. Like Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty (and like 2/3 of the other nominees throughout the history of this category), the primary goal of this film is humor. Like The Cat Concerto and many other shorts from the golden age of studio animation in the 1930s-1950s, its primary means of getting to this goal is through slapstick. But this is less like The Cat Concerto and more like This Way Up, from 2008. Both films relied on slapstick to find humor out of death, and in my opinion both films kind of fell short. French Roast and Granny O'Grimm knew exactly what they wanted to show and took no detours, but The Lady and the Reaper and This Way Up were films that went just about everywhere but never really got anywhere. It's almost as if the filmmakers were completing its storyboard and one person said, "Oh yeah, wouldn't it be funny if ____ happened?" and they threw it in. It was funny during the first half, but by the beginning of the second half I was just waiting for them to get to the conclusion, and there were three more minutes to go. I would ultimately rank The Lady and the Reaper ahead of This Way Up because it had three pretty good positives. It dealt with a rather serious issue that I may have to face as a physician, even if it was kind of muddled by the slapstick action. As a physician I may want to save every life, but I have to deal with the harsh reality that some people may not want to be resuscitated. Another positive was that this had a satisfactory ending. What really bothered me about This Way Up was that even though its action was funny, I really didn't like the ending. Finally, The Lady and the Reaper had an effective use of the classic song "We'll Meet Again," best known for its appearance in Dr. Strangelove.
The three previous shorts are all fine films in their own right (even if I just spent a while complaining about one of them), but to be honest the "race" that year was between these final two shorts. Logorama is certainly the most intriguing nominee this year. As its title suggests, Logorama is set in a world occupied by company logos and mascots, but it's certainly not a typical day. Ronald McDonald is going on a crime spree, transporting illegal substances and taking young Big Boy hostage. It's up to the Michelin Men to save the day, but can they do it?
From its very first shot, which is a still of the Malibu Rum logo followed by a zoom out to reveal the Microsoft Windows butterflies and the Pelforth Pelican (I had to look that one up), it's clear that Logorama isn't your typical animated short. It just blows you away with all of its logos and mascots. There are some that I never even knew exists (like the aforementioned Pelforth Pelican...hooray for not drinking beer!) The mere idea behind the short is a form of social commentary, about how ingrained we are in a world of giant business conglomerates. Each mascot or logo is a reminder of how these businesses are trying to lure consumers into making them richer and richer. (It's especially unnerving after watching Food. Inc) Another thing that makes Logorama different is its subject matter. Animation has been exploring the adult frontier since Fritz the Cat in 1972, but on the whole people still think of animation as kids fare. Logorama is not for kids. Ten profanities were used within the first two minutes (including my personal favorite, "that shit's fucked up," with a zoom cut for emphasis.) That's not even mentioning the violence or sexual innuendo. I've seen 295 of the 322 nominees throughout the history of the award (91.6%), and none of the films have the amount of profanity or violence seen in Logorama.*
*Although a few shorts best it in sexual content, including Bob Godfrey's Kama Sutra Rides Again and Dream Doll & National Film Board of Canada's Special Delivery, Hunger, and Bob's Birthday.
Anyways, I've established that Logorama is different, but the question now becomes, is it good? I think that question only depends on personal taste. I've seen the film well over a dozen times now, and I've warmed up to it quite a bit, but I really hated it my first time. The problem I had with Logorama is the same problem I had with The Lady and the Reaper. I appreciate what it was trying to do, serve as an analogy of how our life has become saturated with companies serving their own interests, but the story felt random, circuitous, and incoherent. The film was entertaining, but since the film was so over-saturated with random violence and profanity, it took several viewings to understand what the makers were driving at. Would I have been willing to re-watch Logorama if it hadn't gotten nominated? Probably not. (As opposed to The Cat Piano or Chuck Jones's Hunting Trilogy, which I don't mind re-watching numerous times even without nominations.) Would I have missed out on a brilliant allegory on modern society? Probably. My final opinion is that Logorama is almost like a double entendre. It's a creative piece that works well on a political level, and it's a film I would be willing to show a friend for the creativity and because it's just so funny seeing Ronald McDonald go nuts. However, I still wouldn't label it as one of the best shorts of all time, mostly because I can't get over the film's sporadic structure.
A Matter of Loaf and Death
There are few series in the history of animated shorts that match the success of Disney's Silly Symphonies (7 wins in 9 nominations) or Hanna-Barbera's Tom and Jerry (7 wins in 13 nominations). Wallace and Gromit is one of them. Before 2009, it was nominated for four Oscars, and won three times. Its only loss was in 1990 to director Nick Park's very own Creature Comforts*. The success is largely due to the fact that the Wallace and Gromit shorts are just great film. The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave manage to fit in more humor, suspense, twists, and endearing characters in 30 minutes than most feature length films in two hours. (Except my sister absolutely despises Wallace. She likes Gromit, but never liked the Wallace and Gromit films because she cannot stand Wallace.) A Matter of Loaf and Death came over ten years after A Clove Shave, and it is evident early on that Nick Park has evolved as a filmmaker. He is able to use different shots or editing styles as a form of symbolism that he hadn't in the past. However, while his skills as a filmmaker has advanced, I'm not alone in my sentiments in thinking that this film doesn't hold up against the previous masterpieces.
*The rest of Aardman Animation hasn't quite had Nick Park's level of success. They're 0 for 3 in nominated films not directed by Nick Park. The other nominations were for Peter Lord's Adam (1991) and Wat's Pig (1996), and Peter Peake's Humdrum (1998).
Some reviewers complain that the film was too dark. While I agree that it was much darker than the other Oscar-winning W&G shorts (which were quite dark themselves), I didn't think that was the problem. Others complained that the jokes were old, but I felt that there were a lot of great comedic moments. What really got me was that the entire film seemed so forced, especially with the way it advanced their plots. One of the things that made the earlier shorts so great was their subtlety. The jokes and plot progression happened in a way that seemed to fit in nicely with the rest of the short. Viewers accepted them because it made sense within the context of the film. I didn't have that feeling with A Matter of Loaf and Death. It feels as though the storyline was forced onto you, and you just had to accept it. There was no more smooth transition between plot points as in The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave. Rather, each new plot point just...happened. There was no foreshadowing to ease you into it, and viewers had no other option but to say, "Okay...that was kind of random, but I'll accept it." Some of jokes had the same feeling, especially the Ghost reference, complete with "Unchained Melody" playing in the background.
But once I took a step back and stopped comparing it to Nick Park's previous efforts, it's clear that A Matter of Loaf and Death was by no means a bad film. As I said, there were still plenty of great comedic moments, and a lot of interesting use of filmmaking styles as a form of symbolism. And there was also good characters (although my sister would disagree about Wallace). A Close Shave had Shaun the Sheep (who was so popular that he eventually got his own spin-off show). A Matter of Life and Death has Fluffles, the tormented poodle belonging to Piella Bakewell. She had great chemistry with Gromit, and also played a key role (although it was hard to bring her up in the synopsis section without spoilers). Overall, if you try not to compare it to The Wrong Trousers or A Close Shave, A Matter of Loaf and Death is an entertaining film with enough action, suspense, and comedy to keep you engaged the entire way through.
And as for my take on the Best Animated Short "race" that year, the real competition came down to Logorama and A Matter of Loaf and Death. While Logorama is a clever short that is starting to get a whole host of supporters, I didn't think it has enough to topple A Matter of Loaf and Death. While I spent an hour criticizing the latter film's storytelling, but to be honest Logorama had the same storytelling problem. The cardinal rule of Oscar predicting was that you DO NOT vote against Wallace and Gromit. Furthermore, A Matter of Loaf and Death is by far the longest nominee - nearly twice the length as Logorama. Why was this important? It's just that the past several years, the Academy has had a tendency of voting for the longest nominee when voting for Best Animated Short. The last time the longest nominee failed to win was for 2002, when the 10-minute Atama-yama (Mt. Head) lost to the 5-minute The Chubb-Chubbs. Since then, the longest nominees are 6 for 6.
So what happened? Logorama won, naturally. I'm guessing the Oscar voters got over the fact that Logorama had trash-talking mascots of tire commercials and saw that it had the most style and substance. I showed Logorama to my friends right after the Oscar ceremony ended, and they immediately fell in love with it. One of my friends is a staunch supporter of Logorama, and every time he meets somebody who hasn't seen Logorama, he tells them to watch it immediately. I tell people to watch all of the nominees, although through is influence Logorama has become my favorite of the nominees.
My rankings (by quality)
Logorama > A Matter of Loaf and Death > French Roast > Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty > The Lady and the Reaper
My rankings (by preference)
Logorama > French Roast > Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty > A Matter of Loaf and Death > The Lady and the Reaper