Thursday, November 14, 2013

Best Animated Short - 2013 - The Shortlist

So last year the list of qualifying animated short films were leaked to the public and I was able to make a post about it, which turned out to be one of my most popular posts. Well, it's been a year since then and I've been waiting for the list of qualifying films, but one never appeared. I went snooping around but the most I found was that the showing of the qualifying films had already happened back in October 22-23 or sometime around then. Well, a few days it came out that the Academy had come out with the shortlist of the films, which are the ten films that the Academy will meet again to decide on the nomination. So like last year, I will be writing on each of the films. The problem is unlike last year when a few of the films were readily available, only one of them fit the bill so far. So most of these will be just previous based on the trailers.

And of course just to show how useless this blog is / how hard it is to blog regularly, the list of finalists has been out for a week, but thanks to a combination of a hectic work schedule and an awesomely awesome pony convention (Nightmare Nights Dallas), this post only just now going up now when you were able to find the films practically everywhere else online.

The idea of a feral child, an individual raised by wild animals, has been around since the ancient civilizations. The Roman legend of Remus and Romulus thousands of years ago features them being raised by wolves. The legend was perpetuated in stories such as Tarzan and The Jungle Book, but also with reports of real life feral children. These stories feature the individual trying to adjust to society but struggling with the divide between their upbringing and societal norms. This concept forms the backbone of Feral by animator Daniel Sousa. From the website, "A wild boy is found in the woods by a solitary hunter and brought back to civilization. Alienated by a strange new environment, the boy tries to adapt by using the same strategies that kept him safe in the forest." So it seems to retread on a lot of the old concepts from the story, but does so in an artistic way. At least that's what I get from just watching the trailer. Although for some reason the film's style reminds me of last year's shortlisted film The Eagleman's Stag, which is strange considering this film is animated instead of live action, and has some colors instead of being just black and white. But the only way to really find out is to watch it.

Get a Horse!
Mickey Mouse is back in his first theatrical appearance since Runaway Brain a full 18 years ago, which is a fitting end to a year of embracing their legendary mascot, who had been kind of falling out of favor in their animation canon for the past 70 years. There's been a whole slew of Mickey Mouse cartoons that embraces his old mischievous self, including his old design, such as Croissant de Triomphe as well as the continuation of the Epic Mickey series of video games. This film, which plays in front of Disney's latest feature film Frozen, is a celebration of old school Mickey from the 1920s and early 1930s, the one that brought Disney from the despair of having lost Oswald to the top animation studio. The film's story is fairly simple. Mickey and Minnie and Clarebelle Cow join Horace Horsecollar and his Hay Wagon in a musical journey down the road, but Peg-Leg Pete comes by and ruins the day when he has his sights on Minnie. He tosses Mickey and Horace out of the picture, which sends them into a whole new world. Get a Horse! is unique in that it combines both the old-style, black and white animation style from animation's early years with the 3D computer generated animation that's huge now. While the film utilizes a style that had been out of date since The Band Concert brought Mickey to the world of color in 1935, it is also an embrace of modern technology. Mickey and the gang do battle with Pete in a modern world using modern technology, while Pete's horn screeches "Make way for the future." The use of both styles is possibly a reminder to look to the future without forgetting the past. Still, while the combination of the two styles is done pretty well, at its heart Get a Horse! is a slapstick film. There are pratfalls and chase sequences and Pete getting tortured pretty badly. There are even a lot of visual gags before getting into the slapstick violence. Some of the gags work pretty while, but others not so much. The animation of the old style Mickey is pretty good, even as animator Mark Kausler noted doesn't quite match up with the originals, but the 3D animation sequence is pretty blah. Yes, Mickey and his friends are in 3D, but it still has a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse kind of feel. It's interesting that the film uses some original voice samples where Walt Disney voiced Mickey and Billy Bletcher voiced Pete, but some of Pete's lines were clearly taken from the 1940 film Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip which is kind of distracting.* Still, Get a Horse! is a fun little film that is sure to be in the running for the Oscar this year.

*Incidentally, footage of Disney and Bletcher doing the voice work for Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip is available. It's an interesting thing to see Disney do Mickey's voice and the diminuitive Bletcher doing Pete. Find that here.

Gloria Victoria
War is heck. It is a terrible thing that leads to untold death and destruction. And yet war is often embraced by those that sees it as a means to an end. This disparaging view about the nature of war is frequently explored within the arts, including in film. Anti-war films such as All Quiet on the Western Front, Saving Private Ryan and The Bead Game showcase the brutality of war in an almost ironic way by displaying scenes of war. This is what Canadian animator Theodore Ushev achieves in Gloria Victoria. While the film probably sounds like the name of a girl, it's actually an artistic but rather brutal look at the cost of war. The film "recycles elements of surrealism and cubism" to display war in a way that is rarely seen. Scenes of carnage and destruction explodes out at you, sometimes in a very ephemeral form where you have no idea what you're seeing, but at other times identifiable features leap out at you in ways where you wish they wouldn't because they are generally so grotesque. Many of the images are taken from classical pieces of art, and if I knew more art history then I'd know what they were from, but for now the only thing I recognize is Pablo Picasso's "Guernica," because come on, who doesn't know "Guernica?" Meanwhile the triumphant tune of Dmitri's Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony plays on during the background lending a sense of success that certainly goes against the graphic images on screen. This film is also significant for being the only film that is readily available online right now, thanks to NFB!

Hollow Land
Well, here we have another film from the National Film Board of Canada, this time in a collaboration with the Danish Dansk Tegnefilm, a combination that reminds me of The Danish Poet, although that film was actually a collaboration with Norway. And in fact this film is by an Israeli husband and wife team. The film is about another husband and wife team who goes onto a journey in search of utopia, but in reality what they are looking for is a place they can call home. At least that's what I get looking at the description on the film's NFB website, which unfortunately still only has the trailer along with a clip. The clip didn't tell much other than the film appears to have some dry sense of humor. The trailer does appear to have interesting visuals, including a long shot of the couple riding in a bathtub that reminds me of Jean-Francois Laguionie's surrealistic classic La Traversee de l'Atlantique a la Rame, because a bathtub is not much different from a rowboat. The character design is kind of ugly, but I suppose it does lend the film a certain feel. Still, I won't really know until I actually watch the film.

The Missing Scarf
"On a quest to find his missing scarf, Albert the squirrel unearths problems far beyond his own." That was all that was written about the film's plot on its official website, but it doesn't quite get at how unique this film looks. The film appears to be a combination of what appears to be rendered and vector animation. Albert the squirrel himself has the polygonal look of real simple rendered animation while the world he inhabits is the flat and clean look that is often associated with infographics. It's very colorful, but also very strange. You've got a pair of evil eyes sneaking up to an owl who looks at it and it turns out to be a smiling pile of poo. You've got a pipe-smoking beaver watching a dead beaver float away in a sea. And you know it's dead because it's gray and has X's for eyes. That's the sort of strange humor that makes it an intriguing film. Plus it is narrator by Hikaru Sulu himself, Hosato "George" Takei, who continued to make his name known with his posting of amusing pictures online.

Mr. Hublot
So I don't know much about Mr. Hublot. The film's official website is rather bare and doesn't even mention what the film is about. The trailers are so short they're not very informative other than showing off the film's visual style, which is admittedly impressive and most of the videos about the film that are about YouTube are centered around it. I had to go on IMDb just to get a synopsis about the film written by somebody that actually had a chance to go to these festivals and watch these films. According to them, "Mr Hublot is a withdrawn, idiosyncratic character with OCD, scared of change and the outside world. Robot Pet's arrival turns his life upside down: he has to share his home with this very invasive companion..." Ah yes, obsessive compulsive disorder, the diagnosis where those afflicted are haunted by unreasonable obsessions and are compelled to do strange things to relieve those obsessions. It's one of the most misunderstood DSM diagnoses by the general public, who seems to focus on the compulsions and orderliness that seems to me more related to obsessive compulsive personality disorder. The trailer does show the main character putting away robotic flowers by turning the switch several times. Only time would tell whether this is true OCD or the popular representation of it. But for now all we have is the trailer.

Requiem for Romance
A young man calls his girlfriend, hoping for a romantic conversation. However, he is instead hit with some shocking news: she was breaking up with him because her parents don't disapprove. Rather than a romantic talk they plunged into a debate on whether or not they should stay together. While their conversations remains through the airwaves, their emotions collide in an epic battle of life or death. That is the premise behind the film by Chinese-Canadian animator Jonathan Ng. The film is visually stunning. The film's design has a distinctive Asian flair with the appearance of calligraphy. There is a scene where the two lovers fight in a room covered with hanging scrolls filled with art calligraphy (that naturally get destroyed.) The action is fluid with fantastic and exciting choreography. And the use of background colors to reflect the changes in mood is well executed. So the film is very pleasing on the eyes. However, the actual dialogue that fills the heart of the film is unfortunately quite banal. Maybe I'm just bitter because I've never been in a romantic relationship, but the conversation feels very unrealistic. It just feels off to have a calm discussion about the Chinese ethos one minute and then having them joke about Korean dramas the next, especially considering the context of the conversation. I find that it kind of ruins the mood. And while the action on the screen was supposed to reflect the tension of the conversation, it doesn't seem to match up because the talk feels muted the entire time. Perhaps the connection between action and dialogue would make for a more compelling film than a seven minute fight scene set to music, but I think I'd rather watch that instead. While it would be nice to have Jonathan Ng become the first person of Chinese heritage to win a Best Animated Short Oscar since Shaun Tan in 2010 (for The Lost Thing), I'm not sure it would happen with Requiem for Romance. Who knows? Maybe the Academy likes it a lot more than me. You can watch for yourself. The film is available online, but not embeddable. So here's the trailer as an embed.

Room on the Broom
Julia Donaldson (not related to Josh) is one of the most famous children's book authors in Britain. Her most famous work is possibly The Gruffalo, which was famously adapted into a short film by Jakob Schuh and Max Lang that was nominated for an Oscar, although losing to the aforementioned The Lost Thing. The film was well received, although many complained about the slow pace, which was a result of the children's story being stretched into a 25-minute British television special. It required a lot of filler scenes. Three years later, Max Lang decided to adapt another one of Donaldson's books: Room on the Broom. This film is about a witch and her cat who goes on a ride on her broom. Along the way she drops her personal items and end up meeting several other animals who don't quite fit in, and invites them along, much to the chagrin of her cat. The film's dialogue is also very simple, being an adaptation of a children's book, but it is quite cute and should be a fun ride for the little ones. The film also features the distinctive animation style of computer animation done to resemble live action Claymation. Unfortunately it may not be quite so entertaining for adults. Room on the Broom also suffers from an issue similar to The Gruffalo in that it's a 25-minute film based on less than 10 minutes worth of material. And moreover the film doesn't quite have the charm of The Gruffalo. There are a few bits of humor, but mostly the time between lines are much more bland, and the lines themselves aren't quite as catchy as the ones in The Gruffalo. It's true that the latter third of the film does get quite exciting, and the film ultimately has a heart-warming lesson that friendship is magic. It's also got an all-star voice cast that includes Simon Pegg as the narrator, Gillian Anderson as the witch, and several other British stars. Still, Room on the Broom may not be as entertaining as its predecessor. The film is out on DVD in Britain and has had a showing in the US, so it's available online if you know where to look. Meanwhile, here's a short little clip.

Subconscious Password
Chris Landreth is one of the more successful animators at the NFB when it comes to the Oscars. His realistic style of computer animation is quite recognizable, and he was nominated back in 1995 for his satirical film The End, and later won the Oscar for his biographical/autobiographical film Ryan nine years later. It's been nine years since Ryan defeated Lorenzo (fuck you, Disney) for the Oscar and Landreth is back again with another amusing film. In Subconscious Password Landreth plays the role of Charles Langford, a simple Canadian man who meets animator John Dilworth (who was also nominated alongside Landreth in 1995 with his classic The Chicken from Outer Space) at a party. Yet try as he might Charles can't remember his companion's name. Charles's mental mechanisms in trying to remember the lost information is portrayed as an episode of the old game show Password (which I have never seen) where various celebrities try to get him to remember the name John. The action seems frantic and frankly quite hilarious, what with droll lines and hilarious animation. It appears to get into the psychological construct of memory, although I am wondering exactly how deep the film gets. It's still something that should be fun to watch. It did win the Annecy Crystal, and the films that do typically do well with the Academy, although it didn't do Tram any good last year. It is still an important distinction.

Tsukumo (Possessions)
A year ago anime and manga legend Katsuhiro Otomo made it onto the shortlist for his film Hi no Youjin (Combustible), but was left off the final nomination list. This year another anime short film made it onto the short list, this time by Shuhei Morita, the director of the short Kakurenbo (Hide and Seek). This time his film is about the legend of the Tsukumo. The word Tsukumo means 99, but it can also refer to the "tsukumogami," a spirit in Japanese folklore that refers to inanimate objects that have become sentient after 100 years of use (or in some versions disuse.) Therefore from the admittedly short trailer it appears as though it's about a man that is haunted by these tsukumogami after ducking in an abandoned shack. And he must somehow pacify these wayward spirits to give him peace. Or something like that. The interesting thing is that Tsukumo is a part of the animated short compilation film Short Peace that is headlined by Otomo's Hi no Youjin. The film is finally coming out on DVD in Japan next January so there may be a chance to watch the film before the nominations are announced, although considering how deeply rooted the film is in Japanese folklore the chances of a nomination is slim unless the film is really as dazzling as the trailer makes it look. Although the Japanese folklore part didn't seem to have harmed Spirited Away, although that really is the best film of all time, or at least one of them.

So here we are. The ten finalists for this year's Best Animated Short race. It's a bit of a bother that I've only seen three of them and can't really make an accurate review on most of the films. Also I've found that even though I've been following the Best Animated Short race for several years, I really don't know what the voters would go for. Would they reward films with challenging and meaningful stories? Or would they prefer films that feature spectacular achievements in animation? Just when you think they go for one type of film, they spring for the other type. It's probably how I only predicted 2/5 nominees last year. Still, after talking to Steve Segal, my professor from the History of Animation course last year, who attended the shortlist showing, here's my prediction:

Get a Horse
The Missing Scarf
Mr. Hublot
Subconscious Password

I may switch Subconscious Password out for Hollow Land or Requiem for Romance just because the Academy may do things like that, but it's probably up in the air. For the record, I would rank the films I've seen like this:

My rankings (by quality)
Get a Horse! > Gloria Victoria > Requiem for Romance > Room on the Broom

My rankings (by preference)
Get a Horse! > Gloria Victoria > Room on the Broom > Requiem for Romance

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