Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1995

1995 was a milestone year of sorts in my Oscar history. It was the year that I first became aware of the Oscars. Oh, before then I knew there was an award show that celebrated the movies, but I didn't know what films won or were nominated until well after the fact. 1995 was the year when I first learned the nominees (at least some of them) BEFORE the ceremony. Okay, it was only one film, which was Apollo 13, which I saw in theaters the year before, but still I cared enough about its Best Picture chances that I wanted to watch the show. I ended up watching just enough to see Apollo 13 lose Best Visual Effects to Babe, and Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream lose Best Documentary Feature to Anne Frank Remembered. I can't remember why I stopped watching, but it wasn't until the next day that I found out Apollo 13 lost to Braveheart.

Nevertheless, I still remembered my first initial burst of interest in the Oscars. The nominees of 1995 was the first set of Best Picture nominees that I watched. Of course, it was almost four years after the ceremony in the autumn of 1999, but I still watched them all. I saw Apollo 13 in the theaters, Babe at a summer camp a year later. I saw Braveheart at a friend's house when I was in my Best Picture viewing phase. And then I saw Il Postino and Sense and Sensibility on VHS after we moved.

The year after the 1995 was also a major milestone in my awareness of the Best Animated Short Oscar. My sister received as a present a Disney calendar for 1996. It featured a screenshot from a Disney artwork and a fun fact. I used to love looking through the calendar, reading the fun fact while admiring the artwork of films that I have both seen and not seen. My memory is probably a bit fuzzy after 15 years, but I remember seeing three instances about the Best Animated Short Oscar. (There was probably more, considering Walt Disney won about half of his 22 competitive Oscars in this category.) I remember seeing that Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, which I'd seen at the time, won the Oscar in 1968. I remember seeing that Der Fuehrer's Face, which I had not seen at the time, won the Oscar in 1942. And I remember seeing that Runaway Brain, the newest work represented in the calendar, was nominated for the Oscar in 1995. I remember being curious about this Animated Short Oscar, but it would be a decade before I finally followed it. Oh well, better late than never.
The Chicken from Outer Space
In a solitary farmhouse in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas lives an elderly couple and their loyal dog Courage. Courage loves nothing more than to sit in the lap of the elderly Murial, but her husband Eustace loves nothing more than to scare the crap out of Courage with a scary mask. One day after another scare, Courage runs outside only to be confronted with something even scarier: a UFO flying in from the sky. Out comes a sinister looking chicken with red eyes. What could the chicken be planning, and can Courage stop him, when even a mouse terrifies him? This was one of the pilot shorts in the World Premiere Toons series (later titled What-a-CartoonShow), a showcase of animated shorts sponsored by Cartoon Network and Hanna Barbera Studios. It saw the debut of the films that became The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter's Lab, Johnny Bravo, as well as Larry and Steve, a film from Seth MacFarlane, who would go on to become Family Guy. Yet this was the only one that went on to get an Oscar nomination. (Of course, it could have been the only film that was submitted, which is still an honor.) And why not? I first saw this film while watching Cartoon Network back in 1997, and I enjoyed the film's balance between comedy and tension. Much of the comedy is derived from exaggerated expressions and absurd situations. For example, Courage doesn't just act scared, he shows it with bulging of his eyes and bristling of his fur. The effect has almost become a cliche in animation, but director John Dilsworth uses it effectively having done it almost all throughout his previous work, the classic Dirdy Birdy. The climactic battle between Courage and the chicken is also a prime example of absurdity. Yet underneath the inanity the story is quite haunting. At least that was the feeling that I had when I finished. The animation is clean and accentuates the feeling of unease with the use of slanted backgrounds and camera angles. However, the use of CGI in the flying saucer as well as the various pictures of real people adorning the farmhouse appears dated. Still, it was an excellent film that I really enjoyed. I was pleased to learn a few years later that it had been nominated for an Academy Award. However, the characters were later brought back in a Cartoon Cartoon show, and I never liked it was much as I did The Chicken from Outer Space.
Where Can I Watch It?

A Close Shave
The dim-witted but talented inventor Wallace and his loyal dog Gromit have now entered the window washing business to fund his latest invention, a sheep shearing/knitting machine. The problem is a string of sheep rustlers have made wool a rarity. One day after washing windows at a wool shop owned by a woman named Wendolene, the duo goes home to find an escaped sheep, whom Wallace adopts and names Shaun, much to Gromit's displeasure. Shaun's appearance will lead to a string of events that will find Gromit getting framed for rustling, and a close shave with the real sheep rustlers. Will they get through okay? And can Wallace's budding romance with Wendolene get off the ground? A Close Shave is the third Wallace and Gromit film from Nick Park, and it is a real dandy. The film continues in the tradition set by the two earlier films, including the Oscar winning The Wrong Trousers, and features loads of humor combined with a solid storyline. Much of the humor in Wallace and Gromit is of the slapstick variety. So many films have tried slapstick humor and failed miserably that it almost annoys me, but the visual gags in A Close Shave are delightful and witty, at least most of them are. Plus as usual there are a lot of situational humor revolving around Wallace's inventions. However, the humor merely complements a thrilling story that is full of mystery, romance, and madcap action. The story moves at a terrific pace and never gets boring. The character development is great all around as usual, with the scene-stealing Shaun the Sheep getting his own spinoff show. The claymation animation is fantastic. Not only is all of the action extremely fluid, but there are a lot of incredible details that I hadn't noticed before, some being film references and other being little things that you miss if you're not paying attention. The voice acting is excellent as well. Peter Sallis is great as Wallace (although my sister still hates him - Wallce that is), and for the first time he has somebody else that will return his banter, with Anne Reid doing a great job as Wendolene. A Close Shave is not only an instant classic, it may be one of the best animated shorts of all time. Of course, you can take my word for it, or you can listen to Time's Richard Corliss, who wrote a short article about the Best Animated Short Oscar back in 1996, and called A Close Shave "the real Best Picture." That's cracking, Gromit!
Where Can I Watch It?
Well, it is available on this Romanian website, but I am loath to embed it from there. It is available on iTunes along with The Wrong Trousers and A Grand Day Out. It is also available on Amazon instant video and on DVD with Wallace and Gromit: Three Amazing Adventures and Wallace and Gromit: The Complete Collection DVD sets.

The End.
Two highly stylized characters, one male and one female, dance around in a surreal world full of symbolism and spout highly allegorical phrases bordering on nonsensical. After a while the action freezes and the characters stand around wondering what will happen next. They are interrupted by a disembodied voice who tells them that he is the animator and that he controls their world and their actions. The characters are understandably peeved and talk back, but the animator silences them and talks with his producer about his various ideas for an ending. But really, who is controlling whom? This early CGI film from Canadian animator Chris Landreth (who would go on to win an Oscar nine years later for Ryan) is certainly a clever idea. It begins as one of those super-profound, hyper-symbolic film that will have you wracking your mind trying to keep up if you even bother. However, a quarter of the way in the characters break the fourth wall and all of a sudden the joke becomes quite obvious. The entire film is essentially a tongue in cheek parody of those ultra-dense animated films, and at the same time it is also a commentary on the production of an animated film. Landreth seamlessly executes these two objectives. For example, in his conversation with the characters, the animator spouts some more of the metaphors while at the same time bemoaning his deadline. The second half of the film is the animator sitting in his studio talking to his producer trying out various endings. The actual ending of the film is perfect and quite mind-blowing once you think about it. It wraps up the entire film in a satisfying way. The end result is a film that is clever, witty, and profound, just as the animator wanted it in the first place. The End. is computer animated, although in a way that is different from Pixar, who came out with Toy Story in 1995. Landreth opts to go with a more realistic look, especially in the character design. He tries to animate himself and even the characters have photo-realistic faces  The animation looks dated compared to other films that opted for a more realistic character design, such as Katedra or even Landreth's Oscar winning Ryan, but it still looks decent. Overall, The End. is an effective and amusing film if you can get past the first quarter.
Where Can I Watch It?

One fine spring day, a group of four caterpillars are sitting on a plant. While most of the caterpillars are munching away at the delectable leaves, one intrepid caterpillar is staring up at the sky. He admires everything flying around and can only dream of flight himself. All of a sudden, strange voices come ringing out. The caterpillars hide behind a twig. A strange item lands in front of him. It is cone shaped with a hollow side that a caterpillar can climb into, which is what the caterpillar does. What follows will change its life forever. So in case you don't know, Yuri Gagarin was the Russian cosmonaut who made history in 1961 by becoming the first human being to fly into space. You might wonder what does the first person to ride into space have to do with caterpillars? Well, perhaps it would be more clear if I tell you that the item that the caterpillar climbs into is a badminton shuttlecock, and the strange voices are two people playing badminton? Yes, this is a Russian film honoring Gagarin using caterpillars to symbolize his famous flight. It is a cute and certainly very clever method of paying tribute and it's executed pretty well. However, I don't necessary think that Gagarin would approve of the ending, even if it is quite funny. I also think it's kind of interesting considering that Gagarin flew in a spherical spacecraft, while the shuttlecock resembles the spacecrafts from the American Gemini program, but I suppose I am being picky. The animation for this film is well done. The animation is done with a simple look that resembles the films of Bill Plympton. The art at the beginning and the end is rather minimalist, with almost no background. It reminds me of a UPA film, only using colored pencils. However, the flight scene in the middle is excellent, especially in the shots taken from the caterpillar's point of view. You see the world passing by as the shuttlecock goes back and forth. It is extremely well animated, and I especially like the spin effects each time the shuttlecock is hit. Overall, this is a cute little film that pays tribute to a hero in a clever way.
Where Can I Watch It?

Runaway Brain
It's a dark and stormy night, and Mickey Mouse is playing a video game when Minnie Mouse comes in and accuses him of forgetting their anniversary. Mickey surprises her by being all prepared, but while he expected to surprise her with a miniature golf game, she sees an ad for a Hawaiian cruise instead, one that costs $999.99. Thankfully, Pluto finds an ad for a job that will pay $999.99. However, the ad turns out to have been put out by a mad scientist for his project: to switch brains with his monstrous pet Julius. The experiment succeeds - although it killed the scientist - and Mickey finds himself inhabiting the body of Julius, and vice versa. Worse of all, Monster Mickey becomes attracted to Minnie. Can Mickey save Minnie from the fate that befell the maid in Franz Kafka's The Country Doctor AND get his body back? I remember this short as it was coming out in 1995. Disney's Adventure made a big deal about it being the first theatrical Mickey Mouse short since the Oscar nominated Mickey's Christmas Carol a dozen years earlier (although I don't get why they skipped The Prince and the Pauper which was released before The Rescuers Down Under in 1990). And People magazine had talked about it when they reviewed A Kid in King Arthur's Court - the film that Runaway Brain was attached to -  in their issue honoring Mickey Mantle, who had died that week. It was also featured in that Disney calendar I talked about. I eventually saw the film when it was re-released in front of George of the Jungle. I remember thinking it was short but funny, and my sentiments remain mostly the same today. It is quite funny, with much of the humor coming from the numerous references to other films, even films not made by Disney. I was personally tickled by the tribute to The Exorcist. Furthermore, Dr. Frankenollie the mad scientist was a great character and stole his scenes before the experiment. However, he got killed after the experiment, and the rest of the film switched to more visual gags by the second half, and those didn't quite work out as well. The animation is quite fluid and detailed, as you might expect from a Disney film, and it did have good use of color in the two climactic scenes in the middle and at the end. And of course, I really liked the character animation for Frankenollie. It gave him a simian look as well as making him speedy, which really fit in with the fast-talking, quick-thinking persona that Kelsey Grammer gave him in an excellent voiceover work. Overall, Runaway Brain is not exactly a deep film, but it's a solid piece of entertainment. And that's what Disney does, right?
Where Can I Watch It?

So it took me until 1999 to watch all five of the Best Picture nominees from this year. By that time I had seen only The Chicken from Outer Space and Runaway Brain. I would see A Close Shave in my Film Study class in 2000, and it would take me until 2007 before I saw the other two. I actually liked all five of the nominated films from this year, but there is a clear favorite, and that would be A Close Shave. It had the deepest story as well as the most substance. Of course, perhaps I may have been slightly biased towards the film having read the article by Richard Corliss, but the Academy agreed by giving A Close Shave the Oscar. And it was well deserved. And while Nick Park hasn't exactly fulfilled Corliss's aspirations for him by winning a Best Picture Oscar, he did go on to change the Academy Awards. Legend goes that the Best Animated Feature Oscar was created because so many people were disappointed that Chicken Run was not nominated for Best Picture because it was animated. I don't know the veracity of that tale, but if is true, Spirited Away won the Oscar thanks to Nick Park. :)

My rankings (by quality)
A Close Shave > The End. > The Chicken from Outer Space > Runaway Brain > Gagarin

My rankings (by preference)
A Close Shave > The Chicken from Outer Space > The End. > Runaway Brain > Gagarin

1 comment:

  1. However, the characters were later brought back in a Cartoon Cartoon show, and I never liked it was much as I did The Chicken from Outer Space.

    Well, blame it on expectations (I didn't expect dialogue to be apparent in the show but it was). I for one thought it was nice to see John R. Dilworth land a show pretty well on a major network like CN at the time. first became aware of him for a film he did for MTV's "Liquid TV" a few years before called "Sweet Talk with Raisin" (featuring a very Courage-ish dog). I sorta miss that buldging eyeball look he use to give his characters then (as it rarely happened in Courage the Cowardly Dog other than one or two of the monsters).

    One thing about "A Close Shave" that always impressed me was in how further we were getting to see the world of W&G itself, especially the town they live in. In the first film, we really don't go beyond their home aside from the moon, the second, we start getting a glimpse of the community itself, though much of it either takes place at night or down alleyways and corridors. In "A Close Shave", we now get more shops, roads and a public square to see, though at the same time, realize how rather vacant everything seems as I always sorta thought how weird it was that hardly anyone appears to be living in such a vacant place (the movie of course corrects that). It's like a Sunday and people chose to stay indoors!

    "The End" and an intresting early work of Landreth's I hadn't seen before. I think the earliest work of his I saw was "Bingo" and I sorta enjoyed what it was as well.

    Incidentally, the name "Dr. Frankenollie" in "Runaway Brain" is a clever pun to the names of animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston or "Frank & Ollie".