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
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
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."
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
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