Sunday, February 3, 2013

Best Animated Short - 2012

Well, it has been three weeks since the Oscar nominees were announced, and once again reviews have been popping up all around the internet trying to make sense of the always-unpredictable short categories. So you can say that the last thing that the world needs is another review of the nominated short films, especially since I'm not privy to watching the films in advance and had to make it to one of the theatrical showings of the nominated films just to watch all of them. But you know what? This is a blog where I try to review all the nominated films in the category's history, and even though I'm on hiatus (because reality sucks), it would be wrong for me to go without a review for the latest nominees. Especially since I've "followed" this race on this forum from the longlist to the shortlist to the final roster of nominees. So yeah, it would be nice to take this all the way to the end.

Not much else to say (aka I don't feel like writing a massive introduction describing an Oscar ceremony that hasn't happened yet), so let's just head over to the reviews.

Adam and Dog
A lonely dog wanders around in a lush paradise of wondrous flora and fauna, trying to survive and find a companion for those long days and nights. One day its travels take it into a large golden field where it sees something it has never seen before: a strange new creature that walks on two legs. The new creature shares some food with the dog, and the two quickly become inseparable. However, the arrival of a strange new being threatens to change their relationship, unless the dog makes a difficult decision. Minkyu Lee works as a visual development animator with Disney, and his credits include character design for Wreck-It Ralph (easily my favorite film from 2012. It won't be the last time this review will mention that film.) However, in the middle of his responsibilities with Disney he had been working tirelessly on the side to bring a short film of his own into fruition, and Adam and Dog is that film. The first thing that sticks out about Adam and Dog is its beauty. While it goes unmentioned, the film is set in the Garden of Eden, and the film goes all out to show the tranquil beauty of the place, highlighted by the backgrounds that appear to be done in watercolors. The film also moves in a very deliberate, relaxed pace. The end result is a film that has a very poetic feel, one that is kind of similar to that of Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven. At the same time the film seems to drag as the story doesn't come close to matching the film's 16 minute running time. The main triumph of the film is the characterization of the dog, who carries the film (in spite of the title, which seems to present him as second billing.) It refuses to anthropomorphize the dog, presenting him as a realistic dog while at the same time capturing his emotions and desperation. It's a wonderful contrast to Adam, who goes around with a goofy expression and is frankly quite annoying. Still, there is a lot to appreciate about this film, but one pretty much has to abandon the action-packed mindset that most people have with films in order to fully enjoy it.
Where Can I Watch It?

Fresh Guacamole
It's Super Bowl Sunday, but before you can relax and watch the Ravens and 49ers duke it out in a contest of primal rage, you have to prepare the snacks! That means it's guacamole making time! Slice open your grenade, being careful to take out the billiard ball pit, then dice up your baseball and pincushion. Throw in some golf ball juice and parts of pepper-shaped Christmas lights and mix well. Then you can enjoy America's commercial pastime with your favorite poker chips. Director Adam Pesapane, known by his stage name of "PES," has become quite popular for his unique brand of stop motion animation, one where he recreates fantastic scenes like sequences from video games or an air strike using only ordinary household items. His most celebrated film prior to Fresh Guacamole was one called Western Spaghetti, where he creates a spaghetti meal using toy pick-up sticks for noodles and pincushions for tomatoes, but the substitution of household items doesn't end there. Flames in the stoves are reproduced by candy corn and oil is simulated by aluminum foil. The film became a viral hit, amassing over 10 million views and was named by as the #2 viral video of 2008. Fresh Guacamole was a film commissioned by Showtime to serve as a follow-up for Western Spaghetti, this time detailing the making of guacamole. Like Western Spaghetti, the production values of Fresh Guacamole is undeniable. PES's films are believable because of his impeccable use of pixilation and stop edits, and Fresh Guacamole is no exception. Fresh Guacamole is a blast to watch because of the creativity. That said, it doesn't quite have the inventiveness or smoothness of Western Spaghetti. The film features little else but the ingredients involved in making the guacamole, and some of the transformation can be quite jarring, especially the transformation from slices of baseballs to dice. Plus, Fresh Guacamole offers little else other than an entertaining look into the creative minds of PES. At about 100 seconds it's the shortest short film ever nominated, beating out The Big Story, and has essentially no plot and even less meaning. Still, it's a blast to watch. Just don't expect it to be anything life-changing.
Where Can I Watch It?

Head Over Heels
Walter and Madge have been married for a long time, so long that they've come to realize that they don't really care for each other anymore. In fact, they can't even stand being in the same gravitational field anymore. So while Walter lives on the floor, Madge spends her time on the ceiling. One day Walter decides to try to rekindle the passion with a gift, but before he can give it to Madge, they get involved in a violent spat that sees their gravitational fields reverse. Can Walter adjust to life on the ceiling, and will Madge ever come to realize Walter's intentions? Head Over Heels is a student film by Timothy Reckart, an American citizen that went overseas to study animation at the National Film and Television School, the British film school best known for being the alma mater of animation luminaries Mark Baker, Alison Snowden and David Fine, and Nick Park. When I was looking up all of the qualifying films, I was highly interested in Head Over Heels for its gravitational field effects reminiscent of the Wii game Super Mario Galaxy. There were some interesting sequences, such as the couple moving the refrigerator or their wedding picture so they can reach it in their gravitational fields. It was very clever but unfortunately for my expectations that was not the focus of the film. The rest of the film seems to be more about the hardness in the couple's heart melting away. It's pretty saccharine overall, and I suppose I could live with that, but there were a few parts of the film that kind of bothered me. The couple was shown to live in a house that levitated in midair like the platform in Balance. The film doesn't make any effort to try to explain it, which is fine but at one point the house crashes in a strange land, which results in the couple's positions switching. At that point the levitation seems like it would be important, but it's never treated as such. It probably isn't important, but I still would like more explanations. And while the reconciliation scene is sweet, I couldn't help but think how physically unrealistic it would be. The stop motion animation isn't quite as smooth as some of the other stop motion films nominated in this category, but it does achieve some technological accomplishment in putting both characters on opposite gravitational fields at the same time. While Head Over Heels may not have lived up to my expectations, it's still a cute little romantic comedy.
Where Can I Watch It?
Like Adam and Dog, this film was put online briefly, but has since been removed. It is being shown in theaters as part of the Oscar nominated shorts program, and Shorts International also has it on iTunes for $3.

The Longest Daycare
One day Marge has an important errand to run, so she drops baby Maggie off at the Ayn Rand School for Tots, which has been updated for the 21st century. There, Maggie was determined to be of average intelligence and placed in the "Nothing Special" section, where she meets her arch-nemesis Gerald, who has developed the nasty habit of smashing butterflies with a mallet. Maggie makes a new friend in a caterpillar, but the two must escape Gerald's wrath, especially as the caterpillar takes the final steps in its metamorphosis. The Simpsons has come a long way since it was created to be a feature on the Tracey Ullman show in the late 1980s. In the quarter of a century since it has become a venerable American institution. Alas, it was never nominated for an Oscar until now, although this factoid is kind of misleading since it's a TV show and TV shows don't compete for Oscars. Still, The Simpsons Movie was passed over for Best Animated Feature back in 2007. And it seems like The Simpsons wouldn't have any success at the Oscars (except for the episode where Bart wins an Oscar, in the Best Animated Short category of all things). However, the franchise's first foray into the realm of animated short films changed all that. The Longest Daycare* played before Ice Age: Continental Drift and starred Maggie Simpson, the member condemned to forever spend her life as a baby. That may be why Maggie is such a hard character to write for, as she really doesn't do much other than suck on her pacifier. However, while she may have a difficult time carrying a 20-minute episode, she is perfect for this 5-minute short film. In The Longest Daycare, Maggie is on her own where she can no longer be a baby but must be valiant and clever for her new friend. This transformation from the Maggie we're familiar with to the heroic Maggie is part of the film's charm. The film also has enough quiet moments, visual gags, cultural references, and references to earlier Simpsons episodes to make it a delightful treat for fans and non-fans. The animation is typical Simpsons fare and nothing special except for the moments that are clearly designed for 3D, which are more annoying than extraordinary, but the score by Hans Zimmer is quite beautiful and carries the film well. The Longest Daycare doesn't break any boundaries, but it is a sweet little film that anybody that has ever liked The Simpsons will appreciate.

*Technically, the film is known as Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare" since that's what's featured in the title screen and was listed in the nominees list. However, I find it cumbersome and doesn't fit in with how films are titled. The Longest Daycare is the film's title, while "Maggie Simpson in" is just a modifier that tells us who is starring in the film. The title screen for the 1957 Oscar-winning Birds Anonymous has the words "Tweety and Sylvester in" on the title screen, but you don't see anybody calling it Tweety and Sylvester in "Birds Anonymous".

Where Can I Watch It?
How sweet. Fox went ahead and posted the film. Enjoy!

George is a desk jockey stuck in a dead-end job. On an ordinary day, he has an extraordinary encounter with Meg, a beautiful stranger, at a train station. He is smitten by her, but she parts before he has a chance to talk to her. He arrives at work feeling more dejected than before, but to his surprise he sees that she is in the building across the street for a job interview. However, the bustle of the city makes it impossible for him to get her attention. Armed with a stack of useless forms, he attempts to get her attention in a different way. Paperman is a short film from the Walt Disney Animation Studios that played before the feature film Wreck-It Ralph, which as I noted was my favorite film from 2012, and one where I watched in theaters a total of three times. That means I got to see Paperman three times before nominations were even announced. The first I saw it I didn't think it was anything special. In fact I thought the climax was incredibly strange, appearing to borrow from a certain scene in Spirited Away without the magic of the Miyazaki film. However, I saw it again after the shortlist was announced and it grew on me. A lot of people on Cartoon Brew are complaining about how flat the story was. Yes, it does rely on some of the most overused tropes such as "Love at First Sight" and "The Power of Love", but what makes the film work is its execution. The tale is completely without dialogue*, and that allows the physical action to take over, which it does with excellent use of physical movement and facial expressions to carry the story. And the film is filled with tenderness and emotions that adults will appreciate, and enough slapstick to make the kiddies happy. Much have been made of the animation style present in Paperman, where the film is done in CG-i Pixar style, but where the shading is more reminiscent of sketch drawings. To be honest it works quite well. It captures the homely style of sketches, and I hardly notice the CG-i nature. Of course that led to criticisms as to why they did this on the computer in the first place, but I'm sure the CG-i added to the film's charm. The film's monotone look except for Meg's lipstick also works quite well. The music by Christopher Beck complements the film well, even if the music in the climax seems a bit anachronistic from the film's setting. Yes, I do feel that the climax is weird, but I've learned to put it behind me as I can let myself be enveloped by the film's sweetness.

*Then again none of the five nominees have any dialogue. It is only the second time where none of the nominees have any spoken words, the other being 2008, the year of Lavatory Lovestory, La Maison en Petits Cubes, Oktapodi, Presto, and This Way Up. 

Where Can I Watch It?
Well, it was too good to be true. Disney had the film online for public consumption for a couple of weeks, during which it accumulated well over 10 million views. Now that we're getting closer to the actual Oscars, they've put a charge of about $2 to watch it on YouTube. Or you can buy it on iTunes for $3 to watch it as many times you want. It's still better off than Redux Riding Hood, which was screwed for 15 years, and Lorenzo, which is still getting it up the hole-in-the-Lyra-plushie. Seriously, Disney. If you really want to squeeze consumers for more cash in your bottom line, why not just release Lorenzo with something like a $20 price tag? I'd be willing to pay 10 times that just to get it off my forsaken Lost Seven list.

Whee! Finally done with another set of review for the first time in months. (Stupid med school getting in the way.) Now comes the biggest question: what will win? Walt Disney Animation Studios used to dominate the Best Animated Short category, but those days are long gone. They haven't won since It's Tough to Be a Bird captured the Oscar in 1969, and have gone 0 for 6 since then. However, most experts are picking Paperman to finally break the futile streak. And why not? It's a major crowd pleaser and combines a touching story with an impressive new animation technique. Plus the mid-century setting would appeal to the Oscar voting demographic of mostly older white men. So it seems natural that Paperman would be the front-runner.

Yet there are some things that may work against it capturing the Oscar. It doesn't have the aesthetic value or challenge the viewer as much as Adam and Dog. It doesn't involve a veritable part of American pop culture like The Longest Daycare. It doesn't have the thematic hook of Head Over Heels, which may also appeal more to the demographic. And it doesn't have the quick painless entertainment of Fresh Guacamole. Plus, Wreck-It Ralph and Frankenweenie have become the front-runners in the Best Animated Feature race. Both are films by Walt Disney Animation Studio. I'm not completely sure how voters think, but if they vote for Disney in one animation category they may choose not to vote for Disney in the other animation category. So yeah, while my heart says Paperman, my head is screaming Adam and Dog. While I would love for my heart to win out, it usually doesn't end up that way. Although who knows? Two years ago my heart said Day & Night while my head said The Gruffalo. And yet the Oscar went to The Lost Thing in the end. So in the end despite my five years of following this category I really didn't learn anything*.

My rankings (by quality)
Paperman > Adam and Dog > The Longest Daycare > Head Over Heels > Fresh Guacamole

My rankings (by preference)
Paperman > The Longest Daycare > Fresh Guacamole > Adam and Dog > Head Over Heels

1 comment:

  1. ADAM & DOG
    "Still, there is a lot to appreciate about this film, but one pretty much has to abandon the action-packed mindset that most people have with films in order to fully enjoy it."

    Or the fact that Adam happens to be anatomically correct! :-P

    Really, I get a kick out of newcomers who act like that never saw that in their lives, though I was amused by one commenter who asked why didn't Adam have any pubic hair. I personally didn't think of any of that, yet if there's one they they got right, it's the non-presence of the belly button (since that usually is the one thing some artists often forget about in their depictions of the famous Bible story simply because they would've have been born out of a womb to start with).