Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1985

And we have now arrived at 1985, the year of my birth. Now I'm sure anybody would be biased towards their year of birth, but I do think 1985 was something special. For example, it was the year of "We are the World" and the Live Aid concerts, which raised millions of aid for the famine in Ethiopia. The NES launched in October, lifting console gaming from the Atari Crash and making it the profitable industry it is today. Calvin and Hobbes debuts in newspapers, beginning a 10-year run where they become an integral part of pop culture. And that was the year the Kansas City Royals, the team I grew up watching, ended years of playoff futility by winning the World Series.

Yeah, there were a few dark sides of 1985. There was the New Coke fiasco. There was the hijacking of TWA flight 847, which resulted in only one death, and the crash of Japan Airlines flight 123, which resulted in 520. And the Royals have gone on an even longer 27-year streak where they never even made the post-season. Nevertheless, 1985 was a pretty good year.

Sadly, the same can't be said about the Oscar-nominated films from 1985. Out of Africa was the big winner at the Oscars, taking home seven trophies including Best Picture and Best Director (for the late Sydney Pollack). It was a touching biographical film about the African experiences of British author Karen "Isak Dinesen" Blixen, but to me it was one of the most mind-numbingly boring films I've ever seen. The natural beauty of the African landscape is offset by a plot that never seemed to get off the ground.

Then again none of the other Best Picture nominees really wowed me. Kiss of the Spider Woman featured terrific performances from William Hurt and Raul Julia, but the plot was too meandering. At least it was better than Prizzi's Honor, the film that promised an epic showdown of two assassins that fall in love but were sent to kill each other, but ended up with two hours of mush and ten minutes of the most anti-climactic ending. Witness was interesting for its depiction of Amish culture and being the film debut of Viggo Mortensen, but the suspenseful and romantic elements were sorely lacking.

In the end the most interesting film nominated for Best Picture was The Color Purple, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's novel. It was brilliantly shot, full of life and vigor, and featured dynamic performances from Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, and Oprah Winfrey (who was much better than Anjelica Huston in Prizzi's Honor, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar). And yet despite being tied with Out of Africa with 11 nominations, it was the only one of the five Best Picture nominees to go home without a trophy, tying the ballet film The Turning Point (1977) for most nominations without a win.

So yes, the Best Picture race was a wash. Can the Best Animated Short category redeem the Oscars? Let's find out.
Anna & Bella
A young bespectacled girl sits on the john reading a comic book depicting a monster holding a woman in its jaws. She reaches for the toilet paper, but comes up with nothing. She realizes with horror that her sister has played another trick on her. They tussle with the toilet paper, a moment captured by their mother in snapshots. Years later the now-elderly sisters look at the snapshots and reminisce about that incident among others. They remember cartoons, puberty, and a traumatic incident that almost changed their lives forever. Anna & Bella is a film from Danish master animator Borge Ring, who also did the Oscar nominated Oh My Darling (1978). It tells the story of two sisters who spent their entire lives together looking back at their cherished memories. Yet the story is not that simple. While the sisters may appear to have a rosy relationship, the tall and pretty Bella has constantly dominated and taken advantage of the awkward and bespectacled Anna. This is evident in the opening scene, and in the climactic incident that makes up half of the film. Anna was going steady with a person that looked like a dancer, but he catches sight of the gorgeous Bella, and switches partners. This act of betrayal breaks Anna, and sends her into a state of internal rage. This sequence is quite masterful. It runs through a whole gamut of emotions in just three minutes: from love and loss to frustration and anger, and finally ends with forgiveness. Ring accomplishes this through masterful use of animation. Anna's desperation is expressed through vivid facial expressions and body language, but also through some excellent visual metaphors. When Anna's spirit breaks from the betrayal, her entire body shatters like glass. And she warps into several dangerous animals when she breaks out in a rage. There are other great examples that show off Borge Ring's excellent skills in visual storytelling. The other half of the film is extremely charming as well. They show the sisters reliving some of the more standard memories, but even though are presented in a delightful way. In one scene the girls are seen watching Donald Duck jumping into a pond in front of an animated Walt Disney. The girls mimic this action in front of the TV, out at a pond, and even as old women years later. The visual representation of the girls entering puberty is also a classic, and the ending is brilliant. The music, written by Borge Ring's father Olaf, is a variation on the same general tune. While the tune is original, it has a very familiar sound to it. Anna & Bella covers a lot of themes in its seven minutes, but ultimately it is about the transcendent love between two sisters, and it is presented in a manner that is both visually deep and appealing. This is certainly one of the best short films I've ever seen. The only complaint I have about the film is that the guy that set off the climactic incident is nothing special. Is he really worth all of the fuss?
Where Can I Watch It?

The Big Snit
In an unnamed Canadian suburb, a couple are spending a wonderful afternoon playing a game of Scrabble while their cat and bird cavort to the side. The husband has received a set of seven E's. Rather than getting a new set of letters, the husband chooses to stall. His wife decides to vacuum in the other room. With the wife gone the husband can enjoy his favorite pastime: sawing. After watching a sawing show and taking a short nap, the husband gets tired and sneaks a peek at his wife's letters, just as she comes in the room. This sets off a bitter domestic dispute where the couple trade barbs at each other's bad habits. All the while, a nuclear war is brewing outside. Can the couple make up before it's too late? The Big Snit is a film from master animator Richard Condie, who made the bizarre La Salla in 1996 and produced Cordell Barker's The Cat Came Back in 1988. This film came before all of that, and is a brilliant showcase of Condie's off-beat sense of humor and willingness to tackle some serious issues. The former is evident from the very beginning, when the wife's eyes go out of alignment, and the only way she can fix it is by removing her eyes and shaking them. The humor is situational, as the husband finds solace in his strange hobby of sawing. It is visual, through the crazy character design to the six-foot Goodyear tire that appears in the couple's bedroom. It's even auditory, as the newscaster warning the public of nuclear war implores them to hide under a refrigerator. That's some sound advice for an impending nuclear war. Yet this short manages to tackle two difficult topics not ordinarily found in animation in domestic fights and nuclear war, yet it does so in a manner that makes it not only seem acceptable, but also makes you ponder them seriously. And by juxtaposing the two, Condie further makes a point that all of our problems don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, so we had better live life to the fullest while we can. All this come together to make The Big Snit one of the most powerful and most enjoyable films of all time. It's no wonder that with the rich history of animation in the neighbor up north, The Big Snit was the highest rated Canadian film in Jerry Beck's list of 50 great animated short films as voted by members of the animation industry. Furthermore, the makers of The Simpons cite The Big Snit as being the inspiration for one of the most seminal moments in the show's history: the Scrabble scene in Bart the Genius, better known as the Kwyjibo scene. You know you've made something special when you've inspired The Simpsons.
Where Can I Watch It?

Second Class Mail
A lady wearing a colorful polka dotted shawl walks towards a postbox dragging a squeaky cart. She reaches into the cart, pulls out a letter, and drops it into the box. A few days later she is busy setting things up in her flat, which she shares with her bird. She receives her package, which contains an unidentified object that she inflates with her air pump. It turns out to be an inflatable male companion. The lady sits him on the sofa and joins him. What sort of fun could she have with him? Second Class Mail is a cute little film from Alison Snowden, a student at Britain's prestigious National Film and Television School*...that deals with an inflatable partner. Surprisingly enough, it's not the first Oscar nominated film that deals with an inflatable sex doll, following Bob Godfrey and Zlatko Grgic's Dream Doll (1979). However, while Godfrey's film (which we'll review in around two months) seems to revel in the doll's blatant sexuality, Second Class Mail is much more muted. At the very least the inflatable doll comes clothed. That way the film doesn't come across as a film about an inflatable doll, but as a sweet look at love and longing among the British geriatric population. You can feel the old lady's desperation, which makes the ending that much more bittersweet. You can almost see the lady as being like Rosemary from Snowden and Fine's George and Rosemary (1987) before she went and met George. The film is also very minimalist in its design, with almost no background, and the foreground being only what is necessary. However, this allows Snowden to try out some nifty film techniques. For example, the film opens with moving colored dots that zoom out to reveal it is the lady's shawl. Later the dots reappear, but the other dots move away leaving only a red dot that turn out to be the postbox seen from above. There are several other such clever design elements. If you've seen George and Rosemary and the Oscar-winning Bob's Birthday, then you know the sort of animation that you'll see in Second Class Mail, as the animation style hasn't changed in the 10 years between Mail and Birthday. There are still some befuddling moments. The squeaky cart is extremely irritating, and I still have no idea what is the point of the 25-second scene with the fly, but overall Second Class Mail is a charming film from one of the top husband and wife animation team.

*Many of the other famous alumni from the National Film and Television School can be seen in the credits for the film. Snowden's husband and frequent collaborator David Fine was credited as "assistant animation and sound", while three time Oscar-nominee Mark Baker and three time Oscar-winner Nick Park received special thanks for help and colouring. Now that's an all-star lineup.
Where Can I Watch It?


So, three nominees and all of them are great. All of them deal with difficult topics in wistful humor, and all of them feature bittersweet endings that make them even more special. Second Class Mail is a charming little film but it pales in comparison to the other two films, which are probably among the great animated short films of all time. Most people seem to take a liking to The Big Snit, and I can see why, as turns a film commenting on the human condition into a blisteringly funny piece of work. Yet I still personally prefer Anna & Bella. Not only does it deal with serious themes, it does so in a visually dynamic way. Still, the strong lineup for Best Animated Short more than makes up for the relatively weak cast of Best Picture nominees.

My ranking (quality and preference)
Anna & Bella > The Big Snit > Second Class Mail


  1. ANNA & BELLA"The only complaint I have about the film is that the guy that set off the climactic incident is nothing special. Is he really worth all of the fuss?

    Yeah he looks pretty dull for someone who could be dumped easily, though I still like the goofy look in his face when he sees Bella for the first time and has to go to her.

    Being reminded Borge Ring just received the Winsor McCay Award at the Annies this year, though at the same time, having lost his house and most of his valuables (except the films) to a fire. I sent him a few dollars to help out. In case you like to see a quick retrospective and award win from this year, check out this vid around 40 minutes in. Amazing the films he's worked on.

    "The squeaky cart is extremely irritating, and I still have no idea what is the point of the 25-second scene with the fly"

    The canary swinging rapidly in it's cage does it for me!

    *Many of the other famous alumni from the National Film and Television School can be seen in the credits for the film. Snowden's husband and frequent collaborator David Fine was credited as "assistant animation and sound", while three time Oscar-nominee Mark Baker and three time Oscar-winner Nick Park received special thanks for help and colouring. Now that's an all-star lineup."

    That's what you get when you're at the right place and time to have those guys work on your student film! I actually have this one on 16mm myself I picked up years back!

    Overall, I suppose the theme of "Death" plays very well with this year's offerings!

  2. Got it on iTunes, but it won't fit on my iPod

    1. If you can go online with your iPod, the NFB does have it's own app that would let you watch "The Big Snit wherever you have wireless internet.

  3. I got it on my Kindle already

    My Films List: Big Snit, The Cat Came Back, Log Drivers Waltz, The Apprentice, Why Me, Get A Job, John Law And The Mississippi Bubble, Bead Game and most of Norman McLaren's stuff(Begone Dull Care is still a great short, but the quality is inferior; glad YouTube fixed it)

  4. Sorry about the repeat. Typed it on my Kindle.

  5. Close vote between Anna & Bella and The Big Snit , ain't it?