Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Best Animated Short - 1999
We've now reached the 1990s in our Best Animated Short journey. I remember this as being the year when I first took notice of this category before the ceremony, although not necessarily in a good way. 1999 was the height of Pokemania, and I was caught in the middle. I played the games (although the only games were Red, Blue, and Yellow) and devoured the anime. I was well aware that the first movie was coming out in September, as the Japanese version was my favorite movie at the time. I convinced my mom to take me to a showing on its premiere, even though it was a Wednesday. Needless to say, I was deeply disappointed by the quality of the dub. Not only did the translation dumb down the story, it inserted pointless errors (i.e. Team Rocket calling a Scyther an Alakazam), and had pretty insipid voice acting. It was the moment that not only contributed to the cooling of my Pokemon Fever, but also destroyed my faith in dubs in general. There was one thing that I didn't find so bad: Pikachu's Summer Vacation, the short film that played before the feature.
I grew up in the era when theatrical short films were out of vogue. Summer Vacation was only the third one I remember seeing (the other two being The Prince and the Pauper playing before The Rescuers Down Under and Geri's Game before A Bug's Life.) I remember thinking, "Gee, I hope this gets nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Animated Short category." There were no other animated shorts that played before other features, so I didn't think the competition will be that tough. Of course, I was a 15-year-old Pokemaniac and didn't know a thing about how short films earn eligibility. While Summer Vacation fulfills the eligibility requirements, it's questionable as to whether or not it was even submitted. Needless to say when the nominations were announced the first thing I checked (after the Best Picture lineup) was the nominees for Best Animated Short. Pikachu's Summer Vacation was not there. I was aghast and dismissed the category as being full of pretentious work that nobody ever sees, which is like most people's reaction towards the short film categories. Little did I know that I would be watching the nominees seven years later, and now twelve years later I'm reviewing them. Are the films pretentious? Let's find out.
There are damsels in distress! One damsel is falling off a building. One has been tied onto a railroad track before an oncoming train. And Snow White is being paid a visit by the wicked witch, poisonous apple and all. Three valiant groups of men must rush over to save them, but countless obstacles stand in their way. Can they overcome them and save the day? This interesting short from Dutch animator Paul Driessen features three concurrent storylines: in an urban setting, in a western setting, and in a fairy tale setting. The film cuts between each individual storyline, with an intercard to show which storyline is being presented. Of course, the stories are simple enough that the constant cutting between stories isn't a distraction. There are references to the other storylines within each individual story, which is interesting. The film is essentially showing the obstacles that the potential heroes must face. The obstacles are quite random, but humorous. The obstacles faced in the first two storylines are somehow linked in some way. For example initially both men has lost the means by which they will rush to aid. The final fairy tale storyline is different and probably the best. It features the seven dwarfs rushing to Snow White's aid, but one by one they get picked off in some way that references other fairy tales. There is a lot of visual humor as well. The animation style is somewhat similar to Strange Invaders director Cordell Barker, with wavy outlines and character animation that is almost grotesque. (Driessen was with the National Film Board of Canada when Barker started, so perhaps there's the connection.) It's overall quite effective and adds to the comedy of the piece, but it can be a bit distracting during the credits. The music, though sparse, works to add a sense of tension. Overall, while it won't change your life, it's a fun little piece that plays on the age old damsel in distress story.
Where Can I Watch It?
It's a lazy afternoon, and two Scottish friends are trying to figure out something to do. They reject television and find only remixes of La Cucaracha on the radio. After a brief interlude involving a visit by a barking salesperson, they rule out chess for a weird reason. Finally one of them comes up with a brilliant idea: shadow puppets, but the other is not so sold on the idea. Can they work it out? This animated film is from Aardman Animation, those chaps across the Atlantic best known for Wallace and Gromit, so you know you'll get some good animation. Humdrum bypasses the claymation work that Aardman has become renowned for in favor of shadow animation. And it's true shadow animation rather than silhouette work like The Adventures of Prince Achmed or The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello. The motion of the characters is also much more fluid than the silhouette work. However, the storyline doesn't quite match up with the quality of the animation. I mean, it's basically about two men trying to jazz up their day. It tries to spice things up by throwing in some humor, such as a knock against animation or the salesman scene. The climactic shadow puppet scene is interesting but the scenario is done much better in Jon Minnis's Oscar winning Charade. The jokes all seem to be thrown in rather haphazardly, and they're not quite funny enough to catch you off guard. The characters are in this double act with a funny man and his comic foil, much like Tomo and Yomi in Azumanga Daioh. It's an interesting way to do things, but the funny man is a bit too annoying and a straight man a bit too humorless to be effective. By the end of the film you feel as though you've been through the same humdrum experience as the characters.
Where Can I Watch It?
My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts
A narrator (representing the filmmaker, I presume) lovingly tells the mostly true story of her grandmother in Norway, and how she came to iron the shirts of King Haakon VII of Norway following his ascension to the throne in 1905 following Norway's independence. Most of the tale centers around Norway in World War II, about King Haakon's refusal to give in to German demands and the resistance movement that formed in response, one where the narrator's grandmother participated. This is an interesting historical film from Torill Kove, the director of the Oscar winning The Danish Poet. The film effectively combines the tale of the filmmaker's grandmother and the story of King Haakon VII, one of the most significant figures in Norweigan history, whose story is not well known in America. This film tells it in a relatively simplified form, but it is still remarkably accurate historically. It's harder to verify the veracity of the grandmother's tale, but I assume it's mostly true, perhaps with some liberties taken. Still, it's a very personal look at a rather turbulent period in world history, and is a reminder that the elderly has some interesting stories to tell if you take the time to listen. The best part about The Danish Poet was its tongue-in-cheek visual and verbal humor. There are inklings of that humor in this film, although it doesn't seem to be quite as well developed. Nevertheless, it's still a funny film. The animation style has that simple look that has come to define Kove, which may be a bit distracting in scenes of war. The English narration by Canadian comedian Mag Ruffman works, although it isn't as nuanced as Liv Ullman's for The Danish Poet. Overall it's an enjoyable film with a good dash of history.
Where Can I Watch It?
Wow. This one was surprisingly hard to find. I got the film on iTunes so took it for granted, but when I was searching for one here it seems almost all of the versions online are in French! Thankfully the NFB has a copy, but I can't embed it.
The Old Man and the Sea
Based on the novella by Ernest Hemingway, this film tells the story of Santiago, an old fisherman who once sailed to faraway Africa, but is now an unlucky old man who hasn't caught a fish in 84 days. With the encouragement of a young boy who idolizes him, Santiago goes out further than anybody else on day 85, where he hooks a magnificent marlin. While waiting for the fish to tire, the old man reminisces about his past, likening the struggle to that of an epic game of arm wrestling earlier in his life, and contemplating the close connection he has to his brother under the sea. Yet when at last he defeats the marlins, he finds that he will be defeated as well. This film is truly an international work, the result of a collaboration between several different countries. While the Russian animator Alexandr Petrov is at the helm, many of the producers and staff were Canadian and Japanese. And of course it is based on an American novel set in Cuba. The Old Man and the Sea was one of my favorite novels growing up, and the film adapts the story quite well. It features most of the plot line, and captures the internal monologue of the old man as he follows the fish. However, it doesn't flow with the vibrancy of Hemingway's writing and as a result drags at time, and I was disappointed by the elimination of references to "the great DiMaggio". Nevertheless, it is still a strong adaptation and good for fans of the book. And of course it is a beautiful film, which is a given with Petrov at the helm. If you don't remember, Petrov is the director of My Love, which I ranked as my seventh favorite Oscar nominated short from 2002-2011. He is best known for his paint on glass technique, which leads to detailed art reminiscent of oil paints. The art is excellent in this film, doing very well in conveying the old man's expressions and the scenes of nature. And yet I had never seen the film the way it was intended to be seen. The Old Man and the Sea was done in the IMAX format, but I had unfortunately never seen it on IMAX. (Wonder if there's any way to get the IMAX theater in Fort Worth to show it.) The English voice acting is decent enough, although the boy is somewhat annoying. Good thing he doesn't have much of a role. Yet overall this is an excellent adaptation of a classic novel.
Where Can I Watch It?
When the Day Breaks
It is morning. An anthropomorphic rooster eats his breakfast as he makes his shopping list while an anthropomorphic pig breaks into song as she peels potatoes for her breakfast. She realizes she's out of good milk and goes to the store, where she crosses path with the rooster. At the store she witnesses an event that will throw her day into into disarray as she contemplates life and death and the connections we have to one another. This film from the Canadian animation duo Wendy Tilby and Amanda Fobris was one of the most acclaimed films from the year, but it was one that I just didn't get. I feel that When the Day Breaks tries to tell the story that Crash wanted to tell, about how the interconnectedness of our existence, only instead of racial stereotypes you get anthropomorphic animals. This is perhaps the darkest film ever made with anthropomorphic animals. I suppose it was good to buck the stereotype that anthropomorphic animals equals fun and joy, but there doesn't really seem to be a point for making the characters anthropomorphic animals. You can tell the exact same story using human characters. The film is animated in a rather jarring fashion. It focuses more time following electrical outlets or sewage pipes from place to place, and the transition is done with white on black outline, which can be quite grating. Of course, the highlight of the film is the sequence after climactic scene involving Mr. Rooster that, for lack of a better comparison, is reminiscent of the post-Third Impact scenes of The End of Evangelion. It was an ambitious effort that I just couldn't get into. Perhaps I fell into the stereotype expecting something different from a film involving anthropomorphic animals. Perhaps I'm just not smart enough. But now I suppose I can sympathize with the people that hated Tilby and Forbis's Wild Life(my fourth favorite nominated short from the past ten years) for being dense and confusing, since that's what I feel about this film.
Where Can I Watch It?
Well, now that I've gone through the films that were nominated over Pikachu's Summer Vacation again, what is my final opinion? Well, most of the films were quite enjoyable, and there's only one that I would describe as being pretentious. And I guess all of them had better stories than the plot-light Pikachu's Summer Vacation, but I still would have liked to have seen Pikachu and pals nominated.
Anyways, from this bunch I'd say The Old Man and the Sea is clearly the best. 3 Misses, Humdrum, and Grandmother told enjoyable stories but didn't leave you with much afterward. When the Day Breaks was ambitious in its effort to inject emotion and meaning but I felt that it fell short. Only The Man and the Sea combined tremendous animation with a terrific story that will stick with you after the film ends. And naturally, it came out on top that year, which was nice since I liked the story, but I didn't really care at the time since Pikachu's Summer Vacation was not nominated.
My rankings (by quality)
The Old Man and the Sea > When the Day Breaks > My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts >3 Misses > Humdrum
My rankings (by preference)
3 Misses > The Old Man and the Sea > My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts > Humdrum > When the Day Breaks