Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1984

Whew. It feels as though we got through some harrowing times, what with the special countdown post. It would be easy to say that it would also be because of my second COMLEX board exam, which happened the day before, but in reality I'm writing these posts far before they actually go up. For example, right now I am writing this on June 24, three weeks before my board exam. So I can't really use that as a reason why I'm so mentally drained, but I did finish that countdown post earlier today, and I just power-washed my parent's driveway, so I guess I do have a reason to be exhausted. Nevertheless, we must press on!

We have come to 1984, the year that has become notorious thanks to the 1949 George Orwell novel of the same year. Thankfully, the real 1984 wasn't quite as suppressed as it was in Orwell's vision, unless of course you lived in communist China. It was also the year before my birth, although if you believe that life begins at conception then my life began in 1984. My original due date was in February 14, 1985, so if you use Naegele's rule then my mom's LMP would have been in May 7, 1984. That happens to be eight days before Roger Clemens's major league debut, although my mom would most definitely have not heard of Clemens at that time.

1984 would have also been the year that Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and The Adventures of Andre and Wally B debuted in Japanese theaters and at SIGGRAPH respectively. Those two films are significant in that their successes led to the formation of two of the top animation studios of our time: Studio Ghibli and Pixar, and are often included in their film canon retrospectively, although Nausicaa was made by Topcraft and Wally B was made when the company was still The Graphics Group.

In the Academy Awards, the big winner Amadeus, based on the Peter Shaffer play that dramatized the turbulent relationship between Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The film captured eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for F. Murray Abraham, who played Salieri. He beat out Tom Hulce, his co-actor that portrayed Mozart. The other acting awards went to Best Picture nominees. Peggy Ashcroft won Best Supporting Actress for A Passage to India (which had tied Amadeus in nominations with 11.) Khmer Rouge survivor Haing S. Ngor won in his film debut for The Killing Fields, the film about the Cambodian atrocities. And Sally Field won for Places in the Heart, the victory that led to her famous "You like me" speech. Meanwhile, A Soldier's Story went home empty handed.

In other categories, the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince won the Best Original Song Score award for Purple Rain, the last time that category was awarded, although it still exists in the Academy rulebook. Stevie Wonder's iconic "I Just Called to Say I Love You" won Best Original Song, beating out the even more iconic "Theme from Ghostbusters." Charlottesville native Paul Wagner's The Stone Cutters won for Best Documentary Short, defeating The Children of Soong Ching Ling. (Wagner would later screen the film in an event I attended at UVA, but unfortunately he did not bring his Oscar statuette.) A different film called Up won Best Live Action Short.

And then there's Best Animated Short. Are the nominees going to be more light-hearted than the five films in the countdown?
A group of people get together to play a gentlemanly game of charade, the game where "one attempts to guess a film or a TV show title from an acted clue given from each syllable or all the whole." In this version, two people are chosen to act out the clue, while the rest try to guess it. The winner is determined by how many clues they can get the others to guess. One of these people is very good at the game, while the other is not quite so good. Anybody who's played a game of charade is apt to understand the frustrations of the character in this film who is "not quite so good." You feel that you gave excellent clues but the people responsible for guessing are too dense to get the hint, while other people can elicit the answer for a more complicated clue using a series of comlex maneuvers. This student film by Canadian animator Jon Minnis takes this into extreme. One contestant, presumably an American, acts out Dracula by doing things like  taking out a bottle of blood and drinking it, driving a stake into his own heart, and even turning into a bat. Meanwhile, his opponent can elicit "The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations" without batting an eye, using only a series of contortions. It's funny stuff whether you've played charade or not. The film is even more impressive when you consider the fact that Minnis animated and shot the film all by himself in only three months while a student at Sheridan College in Canada. He received some help with coloring and sound, but otherwise it was a one man job. He even did all of the voices. There is a credit giving special thanks to "Zlatko Grgic's Red Ford Mustang." Grgic is the Oscar nominated animator (for Dream Doll in 1979) who was working for the National Film Board of Canada at the time, but I have no idea the story behind that. The film was later picked up by Oscar-nominated animator Michael Mills after Minnis went to work for his studio and that helped with distribution, although I have no idea why Mills's name is spelled "Micheal." Anyways, even if you discount the Minnis's accomplishment, it's still a funny film. The ending was a bit tasteless and left me with bad vibes, but it's still a must-see film if you've ever played a game of charade.
Where Can I Watch It?

Doctor De Soto
Doctor De Soto is a dentist working in a world of anthropomorphic animals. He is also a mouse. He is especially popular with larger animals, as his small size and dentistry skills minimizes the pain they feel to almost nothing. However, he has a policy against treating animals dangerous to mice. One day, a forlorn fox shows up at his office in massive pain. His assistant, who is also his wife, takes pity on the fox and they make one exception. The tooth extraction is a success, but along the way the fox unconsciously mutter words about eating mice. The De Sotos are fairly certain the fox wants to eat them, and he still has to come back the next day for his new tooth. Can they outfox the fox? Doctor De Soto is a film by Michael Sporn and his studio in association with Weston Woods Productions based on a book by William Steig. Michael Sporn is one of the preeminent animators of our time, and he even maintains his own blog where he discusses animation. Weston Woods is the animation studio that was formed almost sixty years ago to bring picture books to life for young children*. And William Steig is the author/illustrator whose works include the Caldecott winning Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, the Newbery Honor book Abel's Island, the book Shrek! that led to the blockbuster film series, and of course Doctor De Soto. The original book was a charming little picture book with colorful illustrations, although I was never impressed by the story, although one site I read lauded the book for its realistic portrayal of the complete trust between the De Sotos. I will give them that. Nevertheless, it was one of the few picture books that was selected as a Newbery Honor book rather than Caldecott Honor book. (I never really understood that. Was the American Library Association insinuating that they loved the story but weren't too impressed by illustrations.) Anyways, in his adaptation, Sporn left the story intact. He made little modifications to the story's original text, mostly just splitting up the dialogue. However, while most Weston Woods films I saw merely animated the story's illustrations, Sporn went another step farther. The characters truly come to life with their actions. He even included scenes that weren't even in the original story, all while maintaining Steig's distinctive art style. The narration by British actor Ian Thompson is a bit too nasal for my taste, but nevertheless Doctor De Soto is a perfect example of what Weston Woods is all about. It took a beloved story and made it into something vivid and memorable.

*I grew up with Weston Woods thanks to their Children's Circle series of video tapes. We had a lot of the tapes but unfortunately I no longer know where they are. The one film I remember most was Gene Deitch's The Three Robbers, based on the story by Tomi Ungerer.

Where Can I Watch It?
It is available online. The New Hampshire Public Television site has it online, and it does have an embed code. It just doesn't seem to work. So I'll just link to it. If you prefer to watch it some other way, it is available on the Pete's a Pizza DVD full of Weston Woods adaptations of William Steig books, and on one of the old Children's Circles tapes that are...kind of out of print.

In a land far away, there is a plain black bird. He spends most of his time admiring a glistening palace in the distance. In the ornate palace there lives a sultan who is very proud of his bird collection. The black bird watches from afar as the sultan's birds transform amongst each other in a dazzling array of colors. To it, the palace must be paradise. It wants to join the procession, but it is disappointed by his plainness. It hatches a  plan, designing a costume using flowers and feathers from different birds to appear dazzling. Will its plan succeed? Paradise is a film from the Indian Canadian animator Ishu Patel, previously nominated for The Bead Game (1977). He is known for his humanistic film. Paradise is still humanistic, as it contemplates about many things that may affect us: the true meaning of paradise; freedom vs. security; being satisfied with your surroundings; the beauty of nature. Patel accomplishes this using birds as characters. He designs this film using a little bit of humor with the black bird and its bumbling antics, and a whole lot of beauty. The entire film is visually dazzling. The flora and fauna both inside and outside the palace are realistically depicted and full of vivid colors. The first half is trance-like as the birds change from one to another in elaborate transformations. It's never explained whether these changes are real or the hallucinations of the jealous black bird, but it's still wonderful to watch. (Except for the bird man. That thing is just weird.) The palace itself is also a majestic work of art. It was produced with thousands of pin holes with light shining behind them, giving it the impression that it really is glistening. The final part of the film is equally beautiful, with the black bird admiring the beauty of the birds and the flowers. The film also comes to life with an epic score that is a collaboration between Romanian pan pipe artist Gheorghe Zamfir, playing a rendition of the popular composition "The Lonely Shepherd," and master Canadian composer Normand Roger, whom we've heard with The Man who Planted Trees. All of the visuals and the wonderful music combine to make Paradise an absolutely dazzling film from our neighbors up north.
Where Can I Watch It?


All three of these films are pretty good, but unfortunately we have to come up with a winner. There has never been a tie in the 80 year history of this category, and I don't believe there will be one anytime soon. If I had to pick one it would have to be Paradise. The art and the music is just so beautiful, and the storyline is very interesting as well. That's not taking anything from the other films, although I'm still not a fan of Charade's ending. The Academy must have loved it, though, as Jon Minnis went home with the Oscar. I'm sure it's the film that would reach the most people, as who hasn't played charade? 

My rankings (quality and preference)
Paradise > Doctor De Soto > Charade


  1. "Grgic is the Oscar nominated animator (for Dream Doll in 1979) who was working for the National Film Board of Canada at the time, but I have no idea the story behind that."

    Zlatko Grgic was a professor at Sheridan at the time I recall, I have a few pals who went there that had him. I've seen his name pop up for a few other Sheridan College shorts as well.

    "The ending was a bit tasteless and left me with bad vibes, but it's still a must-see film if you've ever played a game of charade.'"

    Strangely I always liked that part (I really don't see much objection here since it's clearly not drawn too graphic). This short use to pop up on Showtime many times in the 80's.

    Shame if you can't get the embed code of "Doctor De Soto" to work on your end.

    "Weston Woods is the animation studio that was formed almost sixty years ago to bring picture books to life for young children

    It's currently owned and maintained by Scholastic Books these days. Another familiar figure who worked for Weston Woods is Gene Deitch, I'm sure you'll get to him soon enough.

    "It took a beloved story and made it into something vivid and memorable."

    You can give them credit for that. Anyone else and we'd never see it!

    You should also check out Deitch's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's "In The Night Kitchen" for what he was capable of animating out of Prague.

    I do wish the Weston Woods stuff was available online for free legitmately from their own site, but fat chance if they still want to charge educator's prices for these films.

    Another Ishu Patel film to look for is "Top Priority" if you can find it.

    You rarely seen a Jaws parody with mentions of Tentacles and Piranha in a good way

  3. Also, The Eggplant That Ate San Diego