Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1968

Okay, I'm not even going to wait until the end to announce this. I don't even know why I do that because I post the title screen for the winning film on every single of my reviews, so it's not like I'm spoiling anything. It's even more true for this years because I wrote about this year's Best Animated Short winner four months ago. That's right, we have finally reached the year that Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day took home the Best Animated Short Oscar, ending the 13 year drought for Disney and making him one of the select group of people to win a posthumous Oscar. It's hard to believe that it's been four months since I was working on the puzzle based on the film, but I guess time passes when you're busy with clinical rotations, board studying, baseball*, and My Little Pony.

*No idea what to think about the Giants beating the Tigers. I mean, I like both teams. I was born in Michigan and still have aunts that are die-hard fans of the Tigers. And I've kind of gotten board the Giants bandwagon since the entire Randy Johnson's 300th win thing three years ago. I've always liked it when teams that hadn't won for a while wins again, and the Tigers haven't won since 1984, a few months before I was even born. However, I'm also not very pleased with the Tigers' efforts to essentially buy their way to the title with that massive deal for Prince Fielder. On the other hand, the Giants had won two years ago, and they beat the hometown Rangers to do so. So, it really was a lose-lose situation. At least it wasn't the Cardinals that won. 

So in my post back in June I talked quite extensively about Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, but I didn't mention any of the films that it was competing against, so there will still be something to talk about in this post.

But before I get into that, let's see what else happened this year at the Oscars. Well, one film really dominated the cinematic landscape this year: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. This film, based on the novel by Arthur C. Clarke, revolutionized science fiction as a cinematic genre. It was packed with fantastic visual imagery of the vision of space. Yes, I really didn't get the film with all of its complex symbolism or metaphors, but it was still a breathtaking film. Who can honestly forget the majestic Dawn of Man sequence, or the sinister manipulations of HAL, or its elegant soundtrack featuring Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra and Johann Strauss (no relation)'s The Blue Danube. And of course it inspired this memorable My Little Pony fan video, which captures the feel of the original in 1/16 of the length.

2001: A Space Odyssey was a hit upon release, becoming the highest grossing film of 1968. And it was successful, receiving four Oscar nominations including one for Best Director for Stanley Kubrick, but it was strangely (or perhaps not so strangely given the film's genre and density) left off of the Best Picture roster. The opportunity to go for the biggest prize went instead to Funny Girl, Barbra Streisand's biographical film on the life of entertainer Fanny Brice; the historical drama The Lion in Winter starring Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn; Oliver!, the film adaptation of the musical based on Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist; Paul Newman's directorial debut Rachel, Rachel starring his wife Joanne Woodward; and Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, which is now infamous for showing the teenaged Olivia Hussey (Juliet) topless. Oliver! led with 11 nominations, followed by Funny Girl's eight and The Lion in Winter's seven. Rachel, Rachel and Romeo and Juliet had four each. Newman and Funny Girl's William Wyler were left off of the Best Director roster in favor of Kubrick and Gillo Pontecorvo for his bold The Battle of Algiers, which had incidentally lost Best Foreign Language Film two years earlier.

A Space Odyssey did well early on, capturing the Oscar for Special Visual Effects. Kubrick was credited with the award, making it the only Oscar he would win in his long and productive career. But then it lost to Oliver! for Best Art Direction. (Also losing that Oscar was the 6 hour Russian epic War and Peace, which went on to win Best Foreign Language Film, making it the longest film ever to win an Oscar, although to be fair it was released in four separate parts.) Oliver! also won for Best Sound and Best Musical Score. The Lion in Winter won for Best Score (Not a Musical.) However, things were not all peachy for Oliver!. It lost Best Costume Design to Romeo and Juliet, Best Editing to Bullitt, and in a serious blow lost Best Adapted Screenplay to The Lion in Winter. Comedian Mel Brooks won his only Oscar that year, capturing Best Original Screenplay for his hit film The Producers. It would not be his only connection to Oscar glory, though.

The acting Oscars that year was subject to a bit of controversy in the Leading categories. There were no real hubbub over Jack Albertson winning Best Supporting Actor for The Subject was Roses or Ruth Gordon winning Best Supporting Actress for Rosemary's Baby, although the latter film was probably very shocking for audiences at the time. However, the real surprise came with the Best Leading Actress. The race ended up with a tie between Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter and Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl. Ties are very rare at the Oscars. The only other time there had been a tie for the acting awards came back in 1931, the year before short categories were established. That year both Wallace Beery and Fredric March delivered stirring performances in The Champ and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde respectively. They were both nominated for Best Actor. The voters had a difficult time choosing between the two, and the race ended up being a tie. Of course, there were only three nominees that year, so you'd have to feel sorry for Alred Lunt, who was the odd man out having been nominated for his role in the romantic comedy The Guardsman. And of course it happened again 37 years later. Many were hoping for another tie with this past year's Best Actress race, but the Academy has just grown to a size that we probably won't be seeing acting ties much anymore.

Best Actor was where the major controversy was. Cliff Robertson was a reasonably successful actor whose biggest role to that point had been playing a young JFK in the war film PT 109. He was cast as Charlie Gordon in the film Charly, based off of the short story and later novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. Charlie was a mentally challenged man that was picked to become the subject in a revolutionary science experiment that ended up giving him genius-level intelligence. However, he remains emotionally unprepared to deal with his new way of life. The film was reasonably  successful, and Robertson was nominated for an Oscar alongside Alan Arkin (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), Alan Bates (The Fixer), Ron Moody (Oliver!), and Peter O'Toole (The Lion in Winter). Robertson was announced as Best Actor, but shortly afterward Time magazine revealed that Robertson and the Charly team had aggressively campaigned on his behalf. The Academy reported that the incident was an embarrassment. Of course, 44 years later that's the way things are done with the Oscars, but it was a major shock back then. Nowadays Arkin was the only one of the other four to win an Oscar, having done so in 2006 for Little Miss Sunshine, while Robertson is best remembered for playing Uncle Ben in Tobey Maguire's Spider-man.

Anyways, when the final awards came up Oliver! and The Lion in Winter were both tied with three Oscars. Of course, Oliver! also won an honorary Oscar for Onna White for her choreography, so that is kind of an advantage. The advantage increased when Sir Carol Reed, best known for his film noir classic The Third Man, won Best Director for Oliver!, and nobody was really surprised when Oliver! was named Best Picture. Of course nowadays Oliver! is remembered as one of the weaker Best Picture winners, but at least it got to keep its title, which can't be said about Young Americans, the film about the choir of the same name which had won Best Documentary Feature but was discovered to have been released too early to qualify for the Oscars. The producers were stripped of the Oscars and given to the runner-up Journey Into Self. And in a even greater "Screw You" move, the nomination was kept for Young Americans, so it will go down in history of having lost rather than having won and then had their win taken away for being ineligible.

At least there were no such controversies in the Best Animated Short category. Let's see which films Walt Disney knocked off to win his record 22nd Oscar, over two years after his death, and dig deeper into the film that got him the win.

The House that Jack Built
Jack lived with his wife in a house that he built, which looks exactly the same as the houses that all of the other nameless office grunts had built. He works in a dead end job as he struggles to make ends meet, but he aspires to be something different. One day his car breaks down, and an eccentric man shows up to trade his car for some beans. Jack's wife isn't pleased at the trade and throws the beans out the window, where a giant beanstalk appears the next morning. Jack climbs up and what he finds there will change his life forever. The House that Jack Built is a film from the National Film Board of Canada, and it is basically combines two popular stories involving characters named Jack. The first part of the film makes use of the additive structure of the original "The House that Jack Built" poem. The film switches to a more conventional storytelling style somewhere in the middle as it becomes a retelling of the "Jack and the Beanstalk" tale where Jack has his life-changing event. The film returns to the original poetic style at the end with different verses contrasting his life's changes. The structure of the film is interesting, but what sets it apart is the content. The House that Jack Built is no longer a fun little tale about misadventures on a farm, but it has become a existential look at the hopelessness of modern day life, the incessant desire for something greater and the supreme importance of self confidence in foundations for success. The animation style is quite simple, much in the style of UPA animation from the 1950s. The characters are devoid of much detail, and the background is very minimalistic. However, the film makes up for that with some incredible visual design. There is one scene of office workers walking in circles, and the film zooms out to reveal other larger circles resembling gears in a clockwork. And the use of colors to express emotion or tension is well done as well. The voice acting is well done. Sure, the use of guys to voice the female characters is a bit strange, but Jack's voice and the voice of the grounded narrator is very good. The music and sound design is haunting but that is fitting for this cautionary tale of life in modern society.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Magic Pear Tree
Jean Navarro was a notorious womanizer whose sexual adventures had become the stuff of legends. One day he sets off to visit his friend the Marquis at his luxurious mansion. The Marquis introduces Jean to his beautiful wife Chantelle. Jean is immediately taken aback by Chantelle's beauty, and she too is enchanted by his charm. She seduces him and he agrees to meet her in his bedchambers at night. However, he challenges her to prove her love by acquiring three items. When she passes the test, how could they get together under the watchful eye of the Marquis? Jimmy Murakami is the Japanese American animation director who in his long career directed such classics as The Snowman and When the Wind Blows. Of course, with the old habit of nominating producers over directors, this remains his only Oscar nomination. The film was directed instead by Charles Swenson, who would later serve as a creative producer for Nickelodeon classics Rugrats and Aah! Real Monsters. I was hoping that this film would be an adaptation from the short story appearing in the epic Chinese occult novel Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, but instead it is an original tale about a French Casanova. The story isn't bad, but ultimately it is one of the one-joke films that I talked about with The Crunch Bird, only with a much more elaborate build-up towards the punch line. And of course the film is 10 minutes long, so there will be a lot of slow moments. I was a bit dubious about the presentation of the test, but there is a enough humor to keep things interesting. Of course, most of them involve the piggishness of the Marquis. The animation is decent, especially with the staging of some of the shots. For example, there is a tracking shot of Jean riding on a horse from a top down perspective when all of a sudden it switches to a more conventional side shot without a cut. That's the sort of thing you can do in animation. The film has a lot of star power in the voice actors, with Paul Frees as Jean, Keenan Wynn as the Marquis, and Agnes Moorehead as Chantelle. I find it quite amazing that Moorehead can sound so seductive when she was close to 70 (it was almost 30 years after she played Charles Foster Kane's mother in Citizen Kane), but I guess that's why they're professional. All three are quite good and really carry the film.
Where Can I Watch It?
Yeah, you're not going to find it online. I tried that for years and failed miserably. In the end I found the film on Jimmy Murakami's personal website. He was selling it on with many other films he made from the 1960s on the DVD set "Reflections of Jimmy Murakami."  

Windy Day
Emily and Georgia are sisters. On one lazy afternoon Emily wants to put on a play in front of an imaginary audience. Georgia is uncooperative, but Emily moves on to begin anyways. Emily plays Prince Joel who must rescue his sister Princess Jane from an evil dragon. Georgia suggests a different play and Emily plays along, but she still wants to finish her play. Along the way the two sisters discuss everything from the subject of marriage, birth, and death. Can Emily and Georgia ever finish their play? In my last review I reviewed John Hubley's Of Men and Demons. In it I mentioned how after he teamed up with his wife Faith, he made many films about the human condition. In addition to that, he also made films using recordings of his children playing. He hit the Oscar jackpot with Moonbird in 1959. And he tried again with Windy Day, using his daughters Emily (now an animator) and Georgia (now a performer with the band Yo La Tengo*). Windy Day seems to be two stories mixed into one. The first story is Emily and Georgia trying to put on their play. This part is quite fun, as Emily must try to make up things on the spot as she deals with Georgia's attempts to sabotage the play. The Hubleys help them along as they animate the girls transforming into their characters in the play. So when Emily says she's Prince Joel, bam! She's Prince Joel. It's basically kids being kids. On the other hand, the girls also spend time talking about some pretty profound subjects. In the middle Georgia recounts a dream she had about death. Even though they approach the subjects with the sensibilities of children, it is pretty heavy stuff, kind of like When Life Departs from 1998. It's a good reminder that kids think about more than what they let on. The one issue I have with Windy Day is that the two storylines are so different, but they aren't joined together very well, so the switch in topics is a bit disconcerting. The animation is typical Hubley, with simple line animation that focus less on detail and more on the message. And the girls are a joy to listen to with their youthful innocence, although sometimes they mumble. Still, Windy Day is a good film in the Hubley anthology.

*Yo La Tengo was interesting to me not because of their music, but because of how they got their name. It is based on one of the most famous stories from the infamous 1962 Mets, who went 40-120 in their inaugural year to set the modern major league record for losses in a season. Richie Ashburn, the future Hall of Famer and former Phillies leadoff hitter, was the best player on the team. He was the only hitter to bat .300 (.306) and have an OBP of .400 (.424), and but he was no longer the fielder he was with the Phillies. It didn't help that the Mets shortstop was the overeager Elio Chacon, who hailed from Venezuela and spoke little English. On several occasions Ashburn would position himself under a pop fly and call out, "I got it." Chacon didn't know what that meant and would run into Ashburn, and the ball would fall for a hit. And no infield fly rule would be invoked. Ashburn eventually learned how to say "I got it" in Spanish, which is "Yo la tengo." In the next game, a batter hit the ball in shallow left center towards Ashburn. Ashburn got under the ball and shouted "Yo la tengo," and to his delight he saw Chacon slow down. He was ready to catch the ball when the left fielder, Frank Thomas, flattened him. The veracity of the story is questioned, but that moment - alongside the Marv Throneberry triple and the Harry Chiti trade - is one of the quintessential moments in the 1962 Mets season.

Where Can I Watch It?

Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day
On one very blustery day, Winnie the Pooh decided to visit his Thoughtful Spot where he tried very hard to think of something. Gopher interrupted his thinking and informed the bear of very little brains that it's Windsday. Pooh decided to abandon his thinking and wish his friend a Happy Windsday. This begins an unforgettable 24 hours for the bear, where he would see one friend lose his home, make another friend, learn about terrifying monsters, and get caught in a flood. Surely this is too much adventure for one bear. Good thing he has his friends. I mentioned this in the other post, but Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day was the second Winnie the Pooh film by Disney. The first was Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, which was successful, but did not make the grade with an Oscar nomination. It was just as well, as Blustery Day came around and did everything that Honey Tree did, but better. While Honey Tree had essentially one storyline, Blustery Day was able to include several. I had always wondered why it was called Blustery Day when a good portion of it was set on a blustery night and a rainy day. Still, the transition between storylines were seamless and streamlined. Honey Tree introduced many of the core characters, including an original character named Gopher (who wasn't in the book), but it was missing two fairly important characters. Blustery Day brought all of them back, even OC Gopher, and it managed to fit in Tigger and Piglet, who have become among the most popular characters in the franchise. Blustery Day had many more songs from the talented Sherman brothers, including the delightful "The Wonderful Thing about Tigger" and "Heffalumps and Woozles." It had tremendous writing. The film is full of snappy dialogue, witty quips, and self-referential humor without feeling forced. It had the amazing "Heffalumps and Woozles" sequence, which follow in the tradition of the "Pink Elephants from Parade" in Dumbo and the hallucinogenic climax in Der Fuehrer's Face. The animation is crisp and fluid, steering away from the limited animation revolution of the 1950s and 1960s and going back to the Disney tradition of the 1940s. The film was full of great voice work from talented voice actors, especially from the two characters making their debut. Paul Winchell and John Fiedler really shine in their roles as Tigger and Piglet, making the mark that will follow them in the next four decades. Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day really is the perfect Winnie the Pooh film. It had humor, action, and taught important lessons in friendship. It couldn't have been a more fitting last animated short film from Walt Disney.
Where Can I Watch It?
You know what Disney's like. They hold on to their copyrights like Scrooge with his money.  There are copies of the film on YouTube now, but I have zero confidence that they will remain there. That's because you can buy the film on VHS or DVD either by itself or as part of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which contains Honey Tree, Blustery Day, and Tigger Too.

There were four nominees this year, which was quite unusual after several years with only three. And it was a shame for the others, because while the other films were very good, they really couldn't match up with Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. The Disney film had more story, it featured better writing, better animation, better production values etc. Only The House that Jack Built could keep up in the meaning department. It's too bad for Jack that it had to come up this year because it would have been a fine choice in any other year. As it is, it merely serves as an also-ran in the rise of the Winnie the Pooh phenomenon.

My rankings (by quality)
Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day > The House that Jack Built > Windy Day > The Magic Pear Tree

My rankings (by preference)
Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day > The House that Jack Built > The Magic Pear Tree > Windy Day


  1. Regarding "The Magic Pear Tree," it was actually produced in 1966 (though released in 1968) and Agnes Moorehead was 65 at the time (rather than 70). I too was amazed at how young and seductive she sounds -- the role of the 'luscious' Chantelle is rather a departure for her, a nice one.

  2. I certainly enjoyed what "The House that Jack Built" had accomplished. Telling stories such as the hopelessness of modern day life can open up a lot of questions one may ask about how he lives his or her life. Incidentally writer and voice actor Don Arioli would later team up with Zlatko Grgic for his NFB film "Hot Stuff", giving the same voice acting as before such as the female voices you talked about in this film!

    That switch in the stories in "Windy Day" can be quite hard to go over, I recall watching this short when I was young and thought nothing of it as it felt more like the random stuff me and my sibs would be talking about otherwise. Interestingly, like with Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass Double Feature, the film was released through Paramount Pictures, whom by 1968 had gotten out of the theatrical shorts business with their own studio (last headed by Ralph Bakshi).

  3. I just thought of it, not one mention of "Yellow Submarine"! What gave animation that sudden surreal, nostalgic edge that lasted into the mid 70's.

    1. For one thing, it's a feature film instead of a short. And for another, I have yet to see it in its entirety. I'm so bad. XP

    2. That's OK, it's still a film that inspired that sort of "pop art" look that crept into advertising and other films into the 70's. I was glad to get a Blu-Ray release recently, but try to check it out when you can.



    1. So it was posted a month after I said you can't find it online. Typical XP