Saturday, February 25, 2012

Best Animated Short - 2011

Well, I might as well somewhere, and why not post the review for this year, which I posted two weeks ago on Facebook. It's the only chance I can get a review up before the Oscars until next year. Anyways, this will be the 80th time the Best Animated Short award has been awarded, dating back to the 1932 ceremony, back when Grand Hotel won the Best Picture Oscar (which was its only nomination. Things were different then.) I don't pretend that I know enough about animation history to know if it is truly reflective of animation history the past 80 years. (I do know that it's often been criticized for passing on truly great animation. I know that they did that frequently in the 1940s and 1950s by giving notice to some of the lesser works from Warner Bros. while ignoring their truly great films). What I do know is that there's been a lot of changes in the animated short film category itself. (This next part will be similar to the introduction last night, but I think it's worth repeating.

First of all, the name has changed a couple of times. For the first 40 years, the category was known as "Best Cartoon Short Subject" before getting changed to "Best Animated Short Subject" and "Best Animated Short Film" in the 1970s. Next, the focus of the award has changed. The early years of this category came during the height of the animation branches of the major studios, and the award went to these major studio cartoons. Disney, MGM, Warner Bros., and Columbia (through UPA) won all of the awards in the first 25 years. Then in the 1960s the focus went towards more independent and foreign animation, with Canada becoming a major player. The 1960s and 1970s saw a shift toward other media, with stop motion in the form of both claymation and pixelation coming into play in the 1960s, and computer animation becoming big in the 1970s and 1980s. Now we get a splendid mixture of traditional 2D animation, stop-motion, and computer graphics.

Anyways, with that over, let's focus on this year's nominees. The Academy seems to be in a feel good, nostalgic mood this year, with uplifting films like The Artist and Hugo taking the lead in the Best Picture race. Similarly, all five animated short nominees this year have that feel-good or comedic vibe. However, not all of the nominees are equal.
Dimanche (Sunday)
It's a lazy Sunday morning in a sleepy small town dominated by the commuter rail that passes through it. A young boy takes out a coin and puts it on the track while a trio of yapping crows watch. The train, a behemoth that dwarfs the rest of the town, drives by and flattens the coin, which the boy uses as his offering to God. After the service, the family goes to grandma's house, where the boy will be bombarded by a lazy grandpa, a brutal slaughter, more yapping relatives, and a mounted bear that somehow seems to be alive. Dimanche is a tribute to all of the lazy crazy days where one has to sleepwalk just to get through. In this case the day builds up to an exciting event, although for me the best part of the short is everything that happens before. The day is supposed to be drab and lifeless, but it is jam packed with bizarre details that fills the story with laughs. The mother irons her scarf while she is wearing it. The only program on the grandparents' TV is a bulldozer putting along. The situations all defy what we would think of as normal, and that is what makes it funny. The art style, reminiscent of the early works of political cartoonist Ted Rall and Cranium artist Gary Baseman, also lends itself to humor. However, despite the promising opening, the film crashes and burns at the climax. I believe it's supposed to represent an imagined event inspired by boredom, but really I don't think it makes sense. And it's not the sort of nonsense where you think "I have no idea what I just saw, but that was bloody awesome" like with Spirited Away. Rather, it feels more like "Yeah...that was stupid." And that is really too bad. I wanted to like the short, but it bothers me that the moments that are supposed to be boring is interesting, while the moment that is supposed to be exciting is off-putting.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Morris Lessmore is a young man sitting in the balcony of a hotel in New Orleans working on his thesis about the deeper meaning of Pop Goes the Weasel. However, his work is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a hurricane. He survives the catastrophe, but finds that his work has been blown away. His book is empty, and he's lost the color in his life. As he explores the rest of the destroyed city, he finds that everything else has lost its luster. He walks out of the town when he sees a beautiful lady fly by with a group of flying books. He is amazed at the sight and tries to get his book to fly to no avail. The lady pities the fool and sends her personal book of Humpty Dumpty to guide Lessmore to the place where he can discover the magic of books and their power to transform. This charming short made completely in the state of Louisiana was inspired by Hurricane Katrina and its terrible aftermath. Along the way it pays tribute to past cinematic works. The film's highlight is its terrific sequences, such as the scene where Lessmore is trying to recover his book in the middle of the hurricane (reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz), or the sequence where Lessmore is so absorbed in a book that he is literally walking in the letters (not sure what it is playing off of, but I'm sure it's been featured elsewhere). In between these sequences are moments of gentle slapstick humor inspired by the works of Buster Keaton. My favorite part of the short is probably the character of Humpty Dumpty, Lessmore's guide. It lives in the 3D book, but the character is 2D, and moves with the flipping of pages. It's a terrific tribute to more old-fashioned animation. The animation itself is a combination of computer animation overlaid on actual miniature models. The character animation isn't as great as say Pixar, but it's appealing, and the combination of the animation with the backgrounds is seamless. Overall, it's a very pleasing film

La Luna
A young boy sails out to sea with his father and grandfather in a small boat called "La Luna". Tonight is his first chance to see his family craft in action, one where he is inevitably going to inherit in the future. His is eager to learn, and imitates the two older males. They are equally eager to teach him their personal styles, although this leads to quite a bit of friction between the two. However, a problem occurs and the age old methods are not sufficient to fix it. The young boy, unburdened by habit, must think of a solution, and at the same time come into his own. This sweeping short film from Pixar will actually play next summer before Brave. It is the first time in five years that they screened a short film and had it nominated a year before it opened. In the small number of reviews I've done, I've already had to write about five other Pixar shorts. While I like the Pixar movies, their short films have generally left more to be desired. It's either that they're full of unfunny humor, or that they bash you in the head with a lesson that they want you to learn. The good thing about La Luna is that it bucks both of these trend. There is humor in this short, but it's more muted and sweet than in the past. And La Luna does include a lesson about following your own path, it is more subtle in its presentation than in Boundin' or Day & Night. The visuals are quite majestic. The character animation has come a long way since even One Man Band, while the lighting and backgrounds are quite dazzling too. I'm not going to tell exactly what the trio's job is, because it's worth watching to find out, but let me just say that it reminds me of Super Mario Galaxy. (Anyways, I probably shouldn't have to worry since it's playing before Brave, and that's going to gross a good $150-200 million).

A Morning Stroll
In 1959, in some random modest-sized city, a businessman walks down the street carrying a briefcase. He bumps into an obese fellow before coming across a curious sight. A chicken comes walking down the road, goes up some steps, and knocks on a door with his beak. The door opens and the chicken enters. The man stares, puzzled. Fifty years go by, and the city has become a large metropolitan area. A man walks down the street listening to his iPhone. He bumps into an obese fellow before coming across a curious sight. A chicken comes walking down the road, goes up some steps, and knocks on a door with his beak. Another fifty years go by. Will the event occur again? Who is taking the stroll anyways? This short was inspired by a story in "True Tales of American Life." While the veracity of the short can be called into question, especially considering the final part is set in 2059, it certainly is a very interesting short. The film is split into three sections from the three time periods where the film occurs. Each section begins the same way, with shots of the sky, the cars, pedestrians, and the street before deviating into the encounter. However, the shots are different in mis-en-scene. For example, the 1959 scene is set in the modestly-populated city and is sepia-tinted with crude lines more reminiscent of animation in the 1930s than the 1950s.  In 2009, the city has become bustling while the scene is animated with vibrant colors. I like this setup where things are the same and yet very different. However, I was bothered by the film's pacing. It moved briskly in the first segment, but the next two segments were bogged down by extraneous action. There was a section of around 30-60 seconds of a man playing with an iPhone app. I can see a statement being made, but that was just too long. Furthermore, the short seemed to have been building up towards the climax and the punch line, both of which I found extremely underwhelming. It was not one of my favorites, but many of my friends liked it, so it's worth watching for yourself, whenever it finds its way online.

Wild Life
Alberta, 1909. A young man from England joins many other of his countrymen and travels to Canada to settle down and make his name as a rancher. The young man is certain that his education will bring him success, and spends much of his time cavorting with his fellow Englishmen and discussing Darwinism with his neighbor's dog. However, as the seasons change and the temperature gets colder, the stark reality of his situation becomes more and more evident. And all the while, a body that is a mixture of ice and dust comes hurtling its way through space. Wild Life is the latest film from the Canadian duo of Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, previously nominated in 1999 for When the Day Breaks. (Tilby was also nominated solo in 1991 for Strings.) I'll be absolutely honest and say that I wasn't a fan of their previous works, and didn't have high expectations coming into Wild Life. However, I was dazzled by the film. The young man's story touches on both sides of the emotion spectrum, with moments of humor and sobering drama. It is told through his letters home (which do not match with reality), interviews with those who know him (reminiscent of the style used in shows like The Office), and a few action sequences. I felt that this was the deepest, most contemplative of all of this year's nominees. There was a recurrent reference to a comet. In fact, the film opens with the definition of a comet. It's baffling at first, but it is explained by the end of the film, although it took an interview with the directors for me to finally understand the analogy. The animation is also very impressive, giving off the feel of a moving oil painting, with a more crisp look than the glass painting of Alexandre Petrov and a more polished feel than the clay paints of Joan C. Gratz. The songs, many taken from actual works, add to the emotions on screen. I felt it was the deepest and most affecting nominee of the year.

So...these are the five nominees. Although I wouldn't quite say this is the best group of nominees, but they're all good films. My favorite of the five is Wild Life, but the reaction in both the showing and most everybody else I've seen are all quite muted for it, so I don't think it has much of a chance of winning. I originally thought that it would come down to the American shorts: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore or La Luna. While it's easy to say that the Academy will just default to Pixar, they haven't been very successful in the Animated Short categories. Since their last win ten years ago, Pixar has been 0 for 6. However, La Luna is very different from the other shorts. It is more subtle, more artistic, more contemplative. On the other hand, Morris Lessmore is a tender tale that is both a celebration of the rebuilding of a fabled American city following a disastrous catastrophe, and a tribute to the regenerative power of books.

And then there's A Morning Stroll. I originally wrote off the short, since I didn't think the Academy with its white, male, 62-year-old voters (the average Oscar voting demographic) would embrace the subject covered in the climax. But then came reports that many prognosticators with inside info originally predicting Morris Lessmore are switching their predictions to A Morning Stroll, a migration that usually foretells an upset. I was aghast, as I didn't think it was as strong as most of the others. Many of the bloggers lauded it, calling it brilliant allegory on our modern culture. I agree that it's an allegory but it just didn't seem as substantial as some of the films from earlier years, like Logorama or The Lost Thing. But then again, these short categories require voters to have seen all of the nominees, and I don't know how many of the typical voters would go see the shorts. The 62 year old voters would be turned off by the climax, but if the average age of voters for the animated short category was in the 40s, they can go for it. And A Morning Stroll is certainly more divisive than Morris Lessmore, but the people that loved it LOVED IT. If they use a "Most #1 votes" system rather than a weighted ballot, I can see it coming through, although I won't like it. Plus, it was one of the most decorated shorts that was nominated, having won at BAFTA and Sundance.

But in the end, predicting these short categories is like picking the NCAA. The possibility is always out there for an upset, so it's just a matter of predicting when the upsets are going to be. One thing I've noticed about this category is that the voters tend to look for once thing: Substance. They want allegories. They want contemplative films. They want a story that will make them feel like they've gained something from watching the film. You can throw all of the style you want, but it's not going to win if it doesn't have the goods. That's probably why the longest nominees won every year from 2003-2008. The extra running length allows for more of the so-called substance. The question is, which film has most substance. I personally believe Wild Life is the deepest of the nominees, but it left many viewers in the cold. So I'll probably stick with Morris Lessmore in the end. It's a universal tale dealing with life and death, destruction and regeneration, and dedication to one's craft. Plus, it pays tribute to film history, which seems to be in vogue this year. Then again, perhaps I am being like the guy who covers his ears while trying to steal a large bell; lying to myself. So I won't be terribly surprised if A Morning Stroll or even La Luna comes away the winner this year.

Anyways, my personal rankings (both quality and preference):
Wild Life > The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore > La Luna > A Morning Stroll > Dimanche

1 comment:

  1. I managed to see "La Luna" this summer with Brave and found it pretty good certainly, but will need to watch these other shorts when I get the time. I would probably feel in the same way about "Dimanche" and A Morning Stroll".