Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1990

This going backwards thing certainly makes for some interesting dynamics. We're now at the first year of the 1990s, which happens to be our last year in this decade. After that we'll be going into the 1980s and 1970s and so on. The 1990s were certainly a meaningful decade for me. It was the decade where I spent most of my formative years, since I was going on five when the decade started and going on 15 when it ended. I've thought about doing some sort of a retrospective write-up of the 1990s where I'd rank each year by how good it was, along with some special memories. But I've been too lazy to get it started, and I'm sure nobody would want to read it. So I'll just be reviewing the Oscar nominated animated shorts instead.

The Oscars for 1990 was certainly interesting. Two crime sagas were part of the Best Picture lineup. Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part III and Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. Goodfellas was more critically acclaimed, but The Godfather Part III was more popular in the box office, earning $66 million at the domestic box office to Goodfellas's $46 million. And when the nominations were announced, The Godfather Part III had seven nominations to Goodfellas's six, although most of the difference was from the technical awards that Godfather had received. In the end neither of them were able to topple the real titans of the awards season that year: Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves. It received 12 nominations in both acting and technical categories. It lost in the acting categories (one of them to Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, the only Oscar the film earned), but took home seven other Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture.

The reputations of these three films have certainly diverged in the 22 years since. The Godfather Part III has it worst, as it is frequently compared to the two earlier films in the trilogy, against which it has no hope of surpassing. Dances with Wolves is still well regarded, but it has nothing on Goodfellas, whose reputation has only improved as it age. It's now frequently cited as Scorsese's masterpiece, alongside Raging Bull. The difference can be seen in how the film industry ranked these films. Back in 1990, Dances with Wolves swept both the Golden Globes and the Oscars. When the American Film Institute released their list of 100 best American movies in 1998, Dances with Wolves still ranked ahead, as it was 75 to Goodfellas's 94. Yet when AFI's updated list was released in 2007, Goodfellas was still ranked 92, but Dances with Wolves had fallen completely off the list.

Meanwhile, while the big boys were duking out in the Best Picture category, the Best Animated Short race was shaping up to be something quite memorable as well.
Creature Comforts
A documentary crew prepares for their most challenging assignment yet: going to the local zoo and interviewing the animals about their living conditions. They interview an ape, a koala, a turtle, a bird, a family of polar bears, a mountain lion from Brazil, and more. They all have different viewpoints. But in the end, it's just another day in the zoo. Creature Comforts, along with another film that will come later, were arguably the films that put Aardman Animations on the international animation scene. Yet Aardman had been around long before 1990. In fact, not only is Aardman celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, but they've also made their mark on the animation world three years before Creature Comforts when they contributed to Peter Gabriel's classic music video "Sledgehammer." One of the animators was a young man named Nick Park who animated the dancing chickens scene. Shortly after the success of "Sledgehammer," Aardman was commissioned to do a series of 5 five-minute films known as Lip Sync. Aardman co-founder Peter Lord directed two of the films and handed the others to three up and coming directors: Barry Purves (would would go on to make Screen Play, my 6th favorite nominated film from 1992-2011,) Richard Goleszowski, and Park. Lord set interviews to animation in his two films, while Purves and Goleszowski branched off in new directions. For his film, young Nick Park decided to combine both strategies. He used the animated interview archetype and took it to a new direction with the interview of animals in the zoo. This unusual point of view was certainly refreshing, as who hadn't wondered what zoo animals were thinking? Yet strangely enough many of the animals' comments probably rang true to the viewers of the time. Some liked the feeling of security and not having to worry about food, while others complained about being cramped, being cold, and being bored. It was possibly a sentiment shared by many. In fact, according to the DVD commentary, many of the interviews were with real people in nursing homes or housing projects. And by attributing these voices to zoo animals, Park was able to craft a clever piece of social commentary that doubles as a fun piece that viewers of all age can enjoy. And while the camera never cuts away from the animals, Park has injected a lot of visual humor to keep things interesting. For example, while interviewing a quail-like bird, you notice that there is a white line around the beak, almost as if it was tied down like a mask. And just as you wonder it, one of the birds in the background pull the beaks off its neighbor and lets go. Creature Comforts is an amusing yet surprisingly deep piece of animation and put Nick Park on the map, along with another film that came out around the same time.
Where Can I Watch It?

A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit
Wallace is an eccentric, cheese-loving inventor living in an English flat along with his quiet but brilliant dog Gromit. On this particular night, Wallace is trying to decide where to go for the next bank holiday. While taking a break from thinking, Wallace makes the horrendous realization that he is out of cheese. He decides to go to the moon, as "everyone knows the moon is made out of cheese." He collaborates with Wallace to build a rocket. They successfully arrive on the moon and enjoy the cheese, but when Wallace inadvertently awakens a mysterious moon robot, who is none too pleased about the unexpected visitors. But the robot has dreams of his own. Is there anything that can appease it? This was Nick Park's other film that was released around the same time, and it was a much more personal project, considering he began work on the film as a student at the National Film and Television School in England back in 1982. The film had a checkered production history where Park did many things that screamed "student film." He wrote to Harbutt's, the company that made animation-grade plasticine, and asked for a free block in exchange for film credit. He called up a famous local actor and offered him 50 pounds to appear in the movie. And he had grand ideas for the film that went way beyond his means. Park ended up graduating before completing the movie, and was hired by Aardman. He continued working on the film using funds from his alma mater in between working on projects like "Sledgehammer." The film was finally completed in 1989, almost seven years after he started.

 A Grand Day Out feels different from the other Wallace and Gromit films. While the film's story is sufficiently complex to fill a 20-minute running time, it doesn't quite have the same twists and turns found in films like The Wrong Trouers and A Close Shave. There are a lot of slower moments that Park spices up by injecting bits of humor. It's not quite the same sort of madcap slapstick or other visual gags that have come to define his later films, but it contains enough humor to keep things interesting. The animation quality changes throughout the film, reflecting the seven year production history, and never matches the fluidity of his later films. But even then it's still well done, especially with the animation of Gromit. Originally Nick Park wanted to give Gromit the ability to talk, but after experimenting with animating a talking dog, he wisely decided that it would be better to leave him the strong silent type, expressing his emotions through facial expressions. Now he's one of the most popular animated characters in Britain. This film also marked the debut of the classic Wallace and Gromit theme, one of the catchiest theme songs, compose by Julian Nott, a classmate of Park's at the National Film and Television School. The rest of the soundtrack is pretty good too. A Grand Day Out may not be as polished as the later Wallace and Gromit films, but it still holds up its own. Furthermore, is an important film that launched the careers of one of the greatest characters in animation history.
Where Can I Watch It?
I can't embed it, but the full film can be found on Google Video. And it's been online for five years!

Grasshoppers (Cavallette)
In the beginning, there was only grass and insects. But then lightning came and burned up the grass, leaving a small flame. A puny caveman runs over to the flame and enjoys the heat, but then a larger caveman comes and pushes the first caveman aside. The first caveman countered by killing his bully with a tomahawk, letting him enjoy the warmth in peace, or so he thought. This marked the beginning of thousands of years of human conflict over everything from romance to riches to ideological differences. But no matter what happens, there is only one constant in the world: grass and insects. War is a gruesome thing. The causes that led to war may be noble or completely pathetic, but either way the destruction and the loss of life is still devastating. The senseless of war has become a fairly common theme in animation. Some films do this by showing war images in a negative light, while others present the history of warfare and highlight the absurdity. This particular film by the famed Italian animator Bruno Bozzetto, best known for his Allegro non Troppo* (which is like a European Fantasia) and the popular flash cartoon Europe and Italy, takes the latter route. He presents the history of human civilization as a series of conflicts between two opposing parties. There is a lot of death and mayhem, but amidst all the killings, everything leads to one common end point, which is the re-emergence of nature. It's a very sobering message, but Bozzetto manages to make it easier to swallow with his dark humor. Many of the conflicts that led to war are simplified into humorous situations. For example, the conquest of Genghis Khan is reduced to the Mongolian general pissing off the Chinese by pissing on their wall. Battles often play out with two armies getting into a Sims-like fracas with dust flying everywhere. It makes for a fairly enjoyable, but the pacing gets more and more frantic until the last 90 seconds is basically people killing each other and proclaiming their beliefs. That's when you most sense the power of the film. The music by frequent Bozzetto collaborator Roberto Frattini adds to the light-hearted mood. For example, in one scene two armies declare war by blowing La Cucaracha on the horn. The soundtrack also borrows heavily from classical music. In one scene, armies pillage at the orders of the Roman Caesar to a tune strongly reminiscent of Carl Orlff's O Fortuna. And the scenes with the grass and insects play against a dainty piano tune that sounds to me like Dvorak's Humoresque No. 7. Overall, Grasshoppers is powerful indictment on human warfare that is presented in a humorous package.
Where Can I Watch It?

*I first heard of Allegro non Troppo in reference to one of my favorite comic strips: Jim Davis's Garfield. Back in the week before Halloween 1989 Davis published a series of comics that really mystified people. Garfield wakes up in an empty house and realizes he's all alone. Furthermore, he finds out that it is years in the future, and that not only are Jon and Odie gone, but technically he doesn't exist anymore. He eventually sees Jon and Odie again, but as Jon gives him his food bowl he disappears. Almost 23 years later the series of comics is still one of the most debated in Garfield history. I was pretty intrigued by the difference in tone of these strips and went to read more about them. I stumbled across a site that talked about its similarities to a sequence in Allegro non Troppo, set to Jean Sibelius's Valse triste, where a lonely cat goes to a ruined house and sees visions of the house's former inhabitants. However, the visions disappear and later, so does the cat. I don't think Jim Davis ever addressed this short as an inspiration, but the similarities are uncanny.

So with two of the three nominees directed by the same person, this has gone down in history as the Nick Park race. Having the same person nominated for multiple nominees used to be a fairly common occurrence back when the Academy nominated executive producers. The last time one person was nominated for multiple Oscars in this category was in 1964, in the final days of the old Studio system, when William L. Snyder was nominated for How to Avoid Friendship and Nudnik #2, both from Rembrandt Films. That was 26 years earlier, and it hasn't happen in the 21 years since. I don't foresee it happening again as long as they are nominating the creative forces behind the films, as animation is such a long process that it's hard to make two films in a year, much less two Oscar-worthy films in a year. Nick Park was able to do this partially because he had a seven year head start on one of the films. Meanwhile, poor Bruno Bozzetto is usually left out in discussions on this race, where he received his only Oscar nomination. But at least he had one. There are plenty of great foreign animators who never got a second look by the Academy. I suppose that's one reason why Best Animated Short never got the attention that I paid to it.

As far as this race goes, Nick Park is best known for Wallace and Gromit, but in this case A Grand Day Out is not the best film. It's a fine film but it lacks the depth and polish of Creature Comforts and Grasshoppers. In this case Creature Comforts beats out Grasshoppers by a small margin. The humor in the latter may sometimes feel more irreverent, and it's certainly to the former's credit that it became somewhat of a cultural phenomenon in the United Kingdom. And Creature Comforts ended up taking home the Oscar, allowing him to win the first of his three Oscars in this category. No living animator has more (although Frederick Back has two.)

My rankings (by quality)
Creature Comforts > Grasshoppers > A Grand Day Out

My rankings  (by personal preference)
Grasshoppers > Creature Comforts > A Grand Day Out

1 comment:

    For many of us in the US, our first exposure to "Creature Comforts" probably came from the numerous airings on Nickelodeon as 'filler' between shows during the schedule, and I recall seeing it countless times on there. I do recall thinking how rather odd and different it all was, not really thinking about the interviews themselves as much for the amusing look of the clay figures like the Brazilian mountain lion conplaining about wanting to go back home. Of course this would not be the last time the concept would be orchestrated by the studio as it was used in ads for electric heating to Chevron gas stations and even spin-off TV programs on both sides of the Atlantic. Nick Park certainly had an edge here and deserved the Oscar dearly (though my heart also went out to someone else I'll get to later).

    Aside from it's earliest entry in the W&G saga, you really can't fault it's lower production skills to the films that would follow in the ensuing years. I enjoyed it fully myself for the same attention I've gave the others. For a student film, it was worth the time Nick put into making it between graduation and other projects for Aardman (I recall he even worked on Pee-Wee's Playhouse for the first season).

    Meanwhile, poor Bruno Bozzetto is usually left out in discussions on this race, where he received his only Oscar nomination. But at least he had one. There are plenty of great foreign animators who never got a second look by the Academy. I suppose that's one reason why Best Animated Short never got the attention that I paid to it.

    That's been my beef certainly. This guy's been at it for over 60 years now, yet he only managed to get one film into the Oscar runnings at all. I suppose it was a hard choice between an animation legend and the new up'n comer to the scene.

    Bruno Bozzetto does the kind of films that tend to make you think, really think about the issues at large as displayed in his work. He still pretty much gives us very biting commentary in the web-based shorts he produces today. Not as many animators could pull it off quite as well as he did (I think the late Osamu Tezuka comes very close).