Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1998

We have arrived to the wonderful year of 1998, currently my favorite year for reasons that are beyond this blog. That was the year that I became a fan of the Oscars. I'll go into more detail about this in the next entry, but suffice it to say I was hooked after watching the ceremony in March. I committed the list of Best Picture winners to memory, and would spent the next several months watching as many of them that I can. So when the nominations were announced in January, I was all over it. Of course, at the time I was all over the Best Picture category, and that was where I focused most of my attention. That was the year Saving Private Ryan burst onto the scene, showing that there was still hope for the summer blockbuster. I saw it on its re-release after the nominations were announced and that was who I was rooting for, but even then I had heard about the Weinstein Machine, and knew nobody could top Shakespeare in Love.

That didn't mean I didn't look at the other nominees. I read the names of the nominees for Best Animated Short, since that was the category that Geri's Game won, and I liked the short when I saw it before A Bug's Life. Of course, this was in the days before YouTube or the theatrical showings sponsored by Shorts International, so all I did was look at the titles. It would be years before I finally got a chance to see all the films, but when I finally did it was well worth it. Anyways, enough talk. It's review time.

A moth goes flying towards a light, as most moths are wont to do. It originally appears as though it is flying towards a solitary light in a blue, amorphous world but as it turns out it was flying towards a light in an elderly bunny's kitchen. When the moth attacks her wedding picture, the bunny has had enough and throws the moth out. However, the moth is not about to give up its assault on the bunny. The bunny gets the last word when she knocks it into her cake and sends it into the oven, moth and all. But the bunny has no idea what is in store for her once the cake is done cooking. Bunny was the first animated short for Blue Sky Studios, who had previously done commercials and special effects for motion pictures (most notably the roaches in Joe's Apartment) and is now best known for the Ice Age series (including the Oscar nominated Gone Nutty and No Time for Nuts). While they are now best known for their comedic work, Bunny is a more serious film. While it's got some moments of humor, it is a more sobering and tender film dealing with the themes of death and love. It was relatively successful in its explorations of these themes, although I felt that the film drags in the middle. And the ending didn't feel especially strong. It wasn't a very confusing ending (my interpretations of the events mirrors Chris Wedge's), but it felt like a downer even though it was probably meant to be touching. Nevertheless, it's not a bad story by any means. The animation is very good, although the backgrounds seem a little bit dated by today's standards. The texturing of the characters are great, although the design is somewhat unappealing, although that may be deliberate. After all, it's supposed to be an annoying moth and an elderly bunny. The music, from renowned singer/songwriter/composer Tom Waits and his wife, is terrific. Overall Bunny has a better story than the Scrat shorts, but it's not quite as enjoyable as them either. Still, it's a fine film that's a good showcase of the studio's talents. And it's good to see how far they've gone in the years since the film was made.
Where Can I Watch It?
Well, this is totally annoying. The only uploaded video that's more than a year old does not allow embedding. And all of the other ones are less than a year old. Oh well. You can do a Google search for "Bunny 1998" or "Bunny Blue Sky" or "Bunny Chris Wedge". Or you can check out the version on Vimeo. (Not going to embed it, since it's less than a year old.) Or you can find it on the Ice Age DVD.

The Canterbury Tales
A group of pilgrims traveling to the cathedral city of Canterbury decides to pass the time by telling stories among each other. They are observed by Geoffrey Chaucer, who serves as narrator between stories. This adaptation of the Chauncer classic is an interesting work. There are three episodes, all of which have been collected onto the DVD I used to watch the short. I can't quite tell which of the three episodes was the one nominated, as the Academy didn't specify. It couldn't have been episode 3, since that came out after the ceremony. It couldn't have been both episodes 1 and 2, as they total over 50 minutes combined, well above the 40-minute short film cap. I'm going to assume it is episode 1, only because the website of Joanna Quinn says that her segment, which appeared in episode 1, was part of a film nominated for the Oscar. Anyways, episode I contains footage of the pilgrims leaving London as well as three of the stories: the Nun's Priest Tale, about a prideful cock who has dreams of getting eating by a fox and the disastrous way his dream came true; the Knight's tale, about two close Greek cousins who under the influence of the gods become bitter enemies over the love of a girl; the Wife of Bath's tale, about a knight under punishment of death after raping a girl who is tasked to find what every woman desires as a way to spare his life.

I'm not going to attempt to comment on the commentary found in these films, that's more of an English major's job. However, I will discuss the quality of the film, which is quite good. This series essentially brings together the best animators in Britain to animate these classic stories, and they did a darned good job. I've always liked films that mix and match animation styles, and this film does it almost flawlessly. The scenes with the pilgrims is done in stop motion animation by a Russian company and serves as a central hub. The animation is terrific, although the content is boring, as most of it features Chaucer introducing characters that will not tell a story until later episodes. It casts presents the characters as the boorish people that they probably were in Chuacer's story, but that doesn't make them very appealing. The Nun's Priest's tale and the Knight's tale are both from Studio AKA, who came into prominence this year with the Oscar-nominated A Morning Stroll. (In fact, director Grant Orchard served as an animator in the Knight's tale.). While both are from the same studio, they have different art styles. The Nun's Priest's tale is done in a cruder format echoing a woodcut, while the Knight's tale is more fluid, perhaps because it includes Michael dudok de Wit (The Monk and the Fish, Father and Daughter) as an animator. The Wife of Bath's tale is animated by Joanna Quinn and her Beryl Productions and contains the detailed pencil animation that she has made her so famous. The Knight's tale looks the best of the three films in my opinion, but the entire film is a visual treat. The voice acting is also terrific, featuring some big name actors including Sean Bean as the Nun's Priest. This film probably simplifies Chaucer's tale, but as it is it's a great film that is well worth watching.
Where Can I Watch It?
The full movie is hard to find online. I had to get the DVD from the UK to watch the film. Joanna Quinn was nice enough to upload her segment from the first part: The Wife of Bath's Tale.

Jolly Roger
A pirate ship attacks a cruise ship attacks a cargo ship. It defeats all of its men, plunders all of its goods (mostly rum), kidnaps the only woman on board, and sends the ship sinking to its watery grave with a few blasts of its cannon. However, woman resents her kidnapping, so the evil pirate captain sends her walking the plank. Meanwhile, a simple vessel with a meek captain, his large first mate, and his cat stumbles across the pirate ship and sees the pirates in a drunken stupor. They steal the treasure and sets off with it. However, all heck breaks loose when they rescue the vengeful female, and the pirates realize the treasure is missing. This quirky short from British animator Mark Baker is a perfect example of minimalist animation. Baker's animation style is incredibly simple, with very basic character designs and limited character motion. His style is reminiscent of the works of Torill Kove (My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shorts, The Danish Poet), but even Kove had more movement in her characters. Of course, even with his animation style Baker's made some pretty profound shorts in the past, such as The Hill Farm (1989) and The Village (1993). However, Jolly Roger's story seems minimal in comparison. The story is cute in the beginning, but then you come to realize that there's really only enough story for a six or seven minute film, while this one runs for over 11 minutes. There's a lot of down time, and it gets somewhat old around six minutes in. And the ending is pretty terrible. The aural aspects of Jolly Roger is the the highlight of the film. The music is catchy, and the dialogue fits in with the minimalist theme. Most of the lines are just one or two words long, with "Aye aye, captain" being the longest at three words. And the characters repeat the same lines over and over again, which may be annoying to some but it fits in nicely in this case. The best part of the film is the pirate's parrot partner, which essentially plays the part of a tape recorder and plays the lines exactly as he hears them. It's incredibly cheesy, but it adds a lot of laughs in an otherwise bland film.
Where Can I Watch It?

An inventor wannabe lives in a dreary, dystopian world, working a stressful job in a factory making a happiness contraption that doesn't seem to work. He is inspired only by his memories of children playing in a playground and the hopes that he will complete his invention and change his life for the better. After an especially upsetting day at work, he completes the invention using the memory as the secret ingredient. His life does change, but at what cost? This incredible short film from Kung Fu Panda co-director Mark Osborne is a triumph in storytelling. The story is essentially told in two halves, with the first half focusing on the main character's desperate life and his aspirations for something better. After a stylistically different sequence, the film transitions to second half, which displays the inventor's success. The structure of the story is well designed, and the execution is flawless. Osborne knows what he wants to convey, and moves ahead without wasting any time. This keeps viewers engaged. The story itself is also great. It's a modern fable about how many things, including how success might change us, as well as what exactly it means to be happy in today's society. No matter what interpretation you take, it's a deep film that will stay with you long after the movie finishes. The animation is terrific. Most of the film is done in claymation, which isn't as fluid as some of the other stop motion film, but serves its purpose well, as it kind of symbolizes the paralyzing meaninglessness of life. However, there is short segment in the middle that uses 2D animation, which represents the world as viewed through the inventor's great invention. This film has effective uses of color. Most of the city is drab and gray or blue and depressing, with occasional bright colors to express faux happiness or the inventor's memories. On the other hand, the sequence in the middle is almost psychedelic in its use of colors. I didn't really like the character design, however. The characters are these alien beings with long necks that kind of resembles ET. That may make it a little harder to connect with the character for some, but it's not a major complaint. And like The Old Man and the Sea, the film was shot in IMAX, which should give the film more power. Unfortunately, like Petrov's Oscar winning film, I didn't see the film in this format. The film is mostly wordless, featuring only some sound effects and New Order's "Elegia." It's a haunting piece that gives the film much of its emotion. In conclusion, More is a powerful, well made film that deserves to be seen.
Where Can I Watch It?

When Life Departs
This film from Denmark and Estonia features interviews with children and their beliefs about death. The children discuss experiences they have had with illness and death, as well as their theories about what happens after death. They explore themes such as Heaven, Hell, reincarnation, and souls. Death is a very sobering topic that not a lot of people want to go into, so I have a bit of a mixed feeling about watching children discuss it. On one hand, it's probably a good thing from a child psychology standpoint to see a child's thought process at a relatively foreign concept even for adults. On the other hand, it's an incredibly depressing subject, and not exactly one where you go "That's so cute" or "Kids say the darndest things." Especially since some of their theories aren't much different from the theories held by adults. Plus, this film is from Denmark and Estonia so it's likely that the film was originally in Danish, and the English version I am watching is a dub. The British children are quite good, but I don't know if the thoughts they are voicing are their real beliefs or line readings from a translation of Dutch children's beliefs. And the film feels like it drags in the middle, probably because they don't stay on a topic for a very long time so you're left feeling "What's next?" And then the film ends. It's definitely more of a documentary, although I guess the filmmakers decided to submit it in the short film category, which they hve the power to do. The animation in this film is quite effective. The entire film is done in a very basic animation style, with simple lines and simple faces. It resembles kids drawings, although there are adults animators that draw like that (Mark Baker and Torill Kove. And Stephan Pastis if he ever makes an animated short.) Of course, they even drew the kids doing their interviews in the same format, which feels a little inappropriate, but perhaps I just like seeing different animation styles in the same short film. The solid color backgrounds are probably meant to evoke the use of construction paper in many children's arts. It's sometimes well used, but at times can blend in with the main animation. In spite of my complaints When Life Departs is still an effective film, it just doesn't hit the level of being powerful.
Where Can I Watch It?

So after watching all of these films again I felt that four out of five of the nominated films have moments where they feel a bit too long. Only More moved at a comfortable pace given the material, and never had that moment where it dragged. It may not have been the most visually arresting film, but on the whole I felt that it was the best. So naturally it didn't win. The Oscar, presented by the bugs in A Bug's Life, went to Bunny. Now don't get me wrong, Bunny was a good film, but it just doesn't have the pacing or the power of More. Of course, it was also the only computer animated nominee, and this was back in the late 1990s, when computer animated films were the exception rather than the norm, so perhaps that pushed it over the top? We'll never know for sure.

My rankings (by quality and preference)
More > The Canterbury Tales > Bunny > When Life Departs > Jolly Roger


  1. I enjoyed Chris Wedge's "Bunny" myself when I first saw it back when I found it on a P2P server. Certainly not a bad try for an early work, though Wedge did make something even more quirky and weird in the 80's I use to see on Nickelodeon!

  2. Got it on "Ice Age" DVD. Love Tom Waits