Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1971

So, we're in the middle of baseball playoffs, normally a magical time for me, but I just can't find myself getting excited, mostly because I don't really care for any of the teams that are left. I was able to ride the Rangers bandwagon to World Series games the last two years, but this year they blew the division lead on the last day, and then dropped the Wild Card game at home to the Miracle O's, my only postseason game of the year. Similarly, the Washington Nationals dominated the regular season, finishing with the winning record, but like the Philadelphia Phillies last year, they dropped the division series to the Wild Card St. Louis Cardinals. Of the remaining team the only team I like is the Yankees, and that's because it had Mickey Mantle, one of my favorite players of all time. Except you know, their offense has completely disappeared, so they're probably not going to be getting #28 anytime soon.

Also an interesting fact is how the Pirates ended up with a 79-83 record, even though they had a 67-54 record on  August 19, when they played a 19-inning game against those same Cardinals that are well on their way to a second straight World Series title. While they won the game, they fell completely off the cliff, winning only 12 games in their last 41 games. That helped them extend their record for consecutive losing seasons to 20. It's so surprising that the Pirates are one of a few teams to win five World Series titles. The first was in 1909, when Honus Wagner led them to a victory over Ty Cobb's Tigers in the first seven-game World Series. It was the Tigers' third straight World Series defeat. The Pirates won again in 1925, when Max Carey and Pie Traynor led the team over Walter Johnson and the Washington Senators, ending their hopes for back to back Series. The Pirates' third title came in 1960, when they were outscored and outplayed by the Yankees, but managed to squeeze in three tight wins, and then came out on top in the most thrilling Game 7 off Bill Mazeroski's walk-off blast. The 1979 Pirates were led by Willie Stargell, whose "We are Family" motto led them to a victory over the favored Baltimore Orioles.

And then there was 1971.

The 1971 were a loose bunch that made history in early September when they fielded the first all-minority lineup. It was a pretty big deal for baseball, but for the Pirates they were just trying to stave off the second place Cardinals, who cut their lead from over 10 games in late July to only 4.5 games. The Pirates won that game, and then continued to play well to win the division by seven games. They knocked off the Giants in only four games, including one where Bob Robertson knocked three home runs, the first time somebody other than Babe Ruth did that. Then they faced off against the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles, who won 101 games and famously had four pitchers with 20 wins, a feat matched only by the 1920 White Sox.* The Pirates had to face the historical Orioles rotation of Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, and Pat Dobson. They stumbled in Games 1 and 2, blowing a 3-0 lead in Game 1 and was dominated by Palmer in Game 2. The Pirates clawed back in the next two games, getting to Cuellar late in Game 3 and bullying the O's bullpen in Game 4. They won Game 5 as well, but couldn't hold the lead in Game 6, and ended up falling in 10. They faced off against Cuellar again in Game 7, and staff ace Steve Blass made an early lead hold up, and knocked off the Orioles.

*Two of the 20-game winners on the White Sox were Lefty Williams and Eddie Cicotte, who were implicated in the Black Sox scandal the year before, and were thrown out of baseball. The White Sox went from finishing 96-58 in 1920 to 62-92 in 1921.  

The star of the Series went to Roberto Clemente, who was on the 1960 team as a youngster, but who by 1971 was a 17-year veteran with 2,882 career hits. He was hurt in 1972, but still managed to get the last 118 hits he needed to get 3,000 on the dot. The Pirates won the division again, but Clemente struggled in the LCS, and Pittsburgh was narrowly defeated in by the team that would become the Big Red Machine. That winter, Clemente went home to his native Puerto Rico. An earthquake hit the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, and the humanitarian Clemente organized charity flights from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua. However, they never reached their victims, so Clemente decided to board the next flight and deliver the equipment himself. The flight was scheduled for New Year's Eve. A Pirates teammate named Tom Walker, who was playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, helped Clemente load the aircraft. Walker offered to go along, but Clemente told him to stay behind and enjoy the New Year's. By the time Walker got home, he heard the devastating news that the airplane carrying Clemente had crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico, killing all on board. Clemente's body was never found. The news devastated the world, and a special vote was held by the BBWAA early in 1973, and they voted Clemente into the Hall of Fame by an overwhelming margin. Tom Walker eventually married and started a family, which would never have been possible had not Clemente told him to stay home. One of his children, Neil, was drafted by his hometown Pirates out of high school. He advanced up the chain and eventually found himself the starting second baseman. He was an instrumental part of the 2012 Pirates, but couldn't prevent their eventual collapse, but he will continue to be a bright spot for the Pirates in the future*.

*Another freaky connection between Clemente and Walker: Many people in Latin America carry their maternal surname at the end of their names. Roberto Clemente's mother is named Luisa Walker, so Clemente's full name is Roberto Clemente Walker

Nevertheless, a year before Clemente's death, and 41 years before the Pirates became an embarrassment, the Pirates were at the top of the baseball world. At the top of the film world was the musical film Fiddler on the Roof, based off the Broadway musical of the same name. Despite being 3 hours long, it dominated the box office and was the highest grossing film of the year. And later on it received one of the five nominations for Best Picture. Its eight nominations were tied with the crime drama The French Connection and the coming of age drama The Last Picture Show. Also receiving Best Picture nominations were the costume drama Nicholas and Alexandria and Stanley Kubrick's ultra-violent drama A Clockwork Orange. Yes, it was a very dramatic year at the Oscars. When the dust settled on Oscar night, Fiddler had done pretty well, winning three Oscars for Cinematography, Sound Mixing, and Adapted/Song Score. Nicholas and Alexandria won for Art Direction and Costume Design. Isaac Hayes won Best Original Song for his soulful "Theme from Shaft." Bedknobs and Broomsticks won a Visual Effects Oscar for putting Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson against an animated backdrop. Another coming of age film, Summer of '42, won Best Original Score. Sentinels of Silence became the only film to win for both Live Action Short and Documentary Short, an achievement that cannot be reproduced under today's rules. Legendary screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky won his second Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his scathing medical satire The Hospital. Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman won Supporting Oscars for their roles in The Last Picture Show, while Jane Fonda beat her father Henry to an Oscar by 10 years when she won Best Actress for Klute.

However, the big winner of the night was The French Connection. The suspenseful film based off of a book about a major narcotics smuggling bust featured Gene Hackman as the hardboiled cop Popeye Doyle. The film was shot with realism as its goal, showing as much of the grittiness of New York City as they can find. The pacing is unique in that it has several slow scenes mixed with some intense action sequences, the most famous being the car chase involving a car and a subway that culminated with Doyle shooting the criminal in the back in an image plastered on the poster. Hackman's convincing portrayal of the hot-headed but effective officer won him universal praise and a Best Actor Oscar. The film also won for Best Adapted Score, Best Editing, Best Director, and of course Best Picture. It was the first R-rated film to win Best Picture, but that really wasn't an issue as two years earlier an X-rated film took home the top prize.

No such controversy over content in the Best Animated Short category. However, that did end up being quite a controversial race. How so? Well, first we need to meet the contestants.

The Crunch Bird
One day, a woman who loves to buy things decided to go out shopping again. She decided it would be a good time to buy a gift for her husband Murray, who does nothing but go to business to pay for her shopping bills. She had a hard time deciding what to get him, but in the end she decided on a pet, one of the few things she had never bought. The storekeeper tried to get her interested in a dog, a cat, and a monkey, but the lady had her eyes on a bird with a special talent called the Crunch Bird. Will Murray like her gift? There has been a couple of nominees that have been essentially one-joke films. The entire film builds up for a punch line, and then ends once the film is delivered. The Big Story from 1994 was one such example, and so is Ted Petok's The Crunch Bird, an idea dreamed up by Petok (an animator for Sesame Street among other things) and voice actor Len Maxwell. The joke, involving the Crunch Bird's special talent, is actually quite funny. My sister and I got quite a few laughs out of it. However, the film doesn't seem to do much beyond the joke. The animation is quite limited, with sparse backgrounds, little movement, and relatively simple character designs. There's nothing overtly wrong with that, but it doesn't quite carry the same emotional punch as films of UPA, who pioneered the use of limited animation. It's probably because The Crunch Bird just builds towards a punch line, so it doesn't really need to be flashy or emotional. It feels a lot like watching an animated segment in Sesame Street. The writing is very simple, and include such classics as "How about a cute little monkey-poo?" It's probably deliberate as a way to extract some extra laughs. The Crunch Bird is an effective presentation of a single joke, which is a pretty good joke, but doesn't elevate itself beyond that.
Where Can I Watch It?

In the beginning, the world was devoid of life. It was populated only by regal mountains made up of stone. However, miraculous changes were occurring deep in the oceans. Single cell organisms with complete living processes were appearing. More of them began appearing, and they were each able to divide to form separate beings, or combine to form multi-cellular organisms. These organisms learned the joys of sex, which formed new species. More complex organisms began appearing until the world was full of strange new beasts. What will the future hold? The topic of the evolution of species seems to be a recurrent one in animation, having been tackled by Ishu Patel in the Oscar nominated The Bead Game, and by Bruno Bozzetto in the Bolero sequence of his epic classic Allegro non Troppo. Before any of these films, Canadian director Michael Mills took a shot at depicting evolution. We had seen Michael Mills before in this blog, as he directed the Oscar nominated The History of the World in Three Minutes Flat, and helped distribute Jon Minnis's Oscar winning Charade. Before his work in independent films, Mills worked for the National Film Board of Canada, and it is there where he made this film. Compared to the other films, Mills's film is focused more on humor. He makes use of bizarre character designs, often incorporating aspects of modern life. The earliest single cell organisms look like eyes, and many of the later animals feature wheels or parts of other vehicles. The situations are also designed to make viewers laugh. The film is largely episodic, and much of the film is focused on humorous situations involving funny ways that the strange animals reproduce, and eat each other. It's pretty clear what the film was intended to do, but I don't find it very funny. I didn't care for the character design, and I found many of the gags to be quite lame. The animation is fairly good, with colorful watercolors and fluid movements, but once again I didn't care for the characters. I know many people who are fans of this film, but for me it was a nice try.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Selfish Giant
Once upon a time, there was a group of children that loved to play in a beautiful garden nearby after school. However, the garden was owned by a giant who had been away on a trip. The giant did not take kindly to the uninvited visitors and chased them all away. He gets the idea of building a massive wall around the garden to keep everybody out. The giant was able to enjoy the solitude through the winter, but the snow, frost, north wind, and hail persisted even when it was spring everything else. Can the giant ever find peace? In 1888, Oscar Wilde, the great Irish poet and playwright, published a compilation of children's stories titled The Happy Prince and Other Tales. One of these "Other Tales" was a story titled "The Selfish Giant," a tale of sin and redemption as played out through the character of the giant. The story was noted for its strong Christian overtones, especially in the powerful ending. This ending had made some non-Christians squirm, but Wilde often incorporated Christian themes in his stories. 84 years later, the story was adapted for Canadian television. The adaptation was fairly loyal to Wilde's original story, even including the ending. In fact, the narration was taken largely word for word from the original story. The pace of the film was very leisurely, mostly to make a 25-minute film out of the 1,654-word story. However, while the pacing is slow the film doesn't get boring. There are plenty of interesting songs and tender montages to keep things interesting. The animation is quite good, with detailed character design and the addition of several small visual gags. The narration by British-Canadian actor Paul Hecht is good with his calm and soothing voice. The music is very fitting to the action on screen as well. Overall, The Selfish Giant is a solid adaptation that is perfect in bringing the work of Oscar Wilde to a larger audience.
Where Can I Watch It?
I know this version is in Japanese, but this is the most complete version I can find, and on only two videos to boot (instead of three or four like the other versions). The others cut off at the very end. You can just find a text of the story online and follow along.

Well, here are the three nominees for this year. I couldn't really care much for Evolution. The Crunch Bird was short and sweet, but far from being groundbreaking. The Selfish Giant gets my vote for being the best of the bunch. I actually like the pacing that some people may not stand, and the Christian overtones. However, some people may have had those issues with the film, so when things were said and done The Crunch Bird, the two minute one-joke film from the Sesame Street animator, walked away with the Academy Award. The results was shocking to even Petok, who said, "Oh, Crunch Bird, my Oscar!" to lead off his acceptance speech. Thankfully the Crunch Bird was not part of the audience. Anyways, forty years later many people still feel this is one of the worst films to win, but it really wasn't that bad. At least the joke was funny.

My rankings (by quality and preference)
The Selfish Giant > The Crunch Bird > Evolution


  1. The Crunchbird is not a very good film, though the joke is pretty funny. The film is infamous in Academy lore. As I heard it from an Academy staffer, for the first several decades of the award Academy members just voted for their choices, with no regard if they had seen the film or not. That year the other nominees were Canadian (not bad, not great). Supposedly many members just voted for the American film if they had seen none of them. Shortly after that win, the rules were changed so you had to attend a special screening in order to vote in this category.

    1. Interesting. Thanks for the info about the rule change following this particular debacle.

    2. It is interesting how that was. If it wasn't for that situation, it would probably have gone on for a number of years more.

    It's one of those sort of things I would call a "water cooler joke" simply because it is something you could remember pretty well and relate to your colleges one day just to take the chat away the time while at work. I'm sure we've all have heard jokes like from time to time.

    It's true to equate the look to that commonly seen on TV commercials or Sesame Street at the time (I just about thought of what a Crunch Bird segment would be like for the letter "C"). I first saw this film oddly stuck into a tape of TV and movie bloopers that was sold in stores like Kmart 20 years ago from Goodtimes Home Video. The short didn't include it's end credits at all and it wasn't until I found a book in college showing Oscar nominees/winners of the past that mentioned this by title and then it hit me! Some years later, Hanna-Barbera apparently used "The Crunch Bird" as a segment in a short-lived prime-time program they had made called "Jokebook".

    To this day I keep thinking, why this? I suppose it wasn't a good year that time, though The selfish Giant deserved it more.

  3. I see a good copy of "The Selfish Giant" is up on YT now!

  4. In my defense The Crunch Bird isn't that bad. After two years of post Walt wins and a weak year even though Is It Always Right To Be Right "rightly" won, I think that the academy needed a laugh or two.

  5. The animation reminds me of Rocky And Bullwinkle

  6. The Crunch Bird was one of the runner-ups for The 50 Greatest Cartoons.

  7. Even as a Christian, I find a soft spot for Evolution

    The Selfish Giant:
    Pros: Loved The King's Singers (as I got their take on "Eleanor Rigby")
    Cons: I knew it was God before the end
    "A Reader's Digest Presentation"