Saturday, February 6, 2016

Best Animated Short - 2015

Well, it's that time of year again, time for me to stop ignoring my blog and actually write something for once. With all but one of the nominees seen and reviewed, I'm at the point where I'd either have to write some content about topics that are not related to this category or wait around for the nominees every year. So far I've been too lazy to write original content, so I'm just waiting around for the nominees, and now comes the point where I can't delay any longer and write the review, because I finally seen all of the nominees.

I was hoping I'd be able to watch all the nominees before having to rely on the nominated short film showings, which is two hours away from me. Using some sleuthing skills (namely searching on Google Video for people willing to sacrifice their YouTube or DailyMotion accounts to upload the films) and going in to watch The Good Dinosaur, I had managed to see four of the five nominees before the showings came to Texas. Alas, there was one film that I was unable to find online, so I had to make the two hour drive to complete the set. And now that I've seen all of the films, there is no excuse for me to avoid writing this review. So here we go, the Oscar nominated animated short films for 2015

Bear Story
It is morning, dawn of another day. An anthropomorphic bear sits at his desk completing a contraption. After putting together the finishing touches and looking forlornly at his empty apartment, he sets off to show his masterpiece. He stops at a street corner and rings a bell to attract attention. One young cub comes up to see what was the commotion, and he sees what the older bear had been working on: an automaton that tells the story of a bear that gets torn away from his family and forced to perform humiliating tricks at a circus. Can the bear escape and be reunited with his family, or is he doomed to be a prisoner to the circus for the rest of his days? Bear Story is a film from Chile, the first Chilean animated short film to be nominated for an Oscar. Most people in America know Chile only as the stringbean-shaped thin country that lies to the west of Argentina with a flag that looks a lot like the Texas flag. In reality, Chile is a diverse country with a long and complicated history, one dominated in the past 30 years by the despotic rule of Augusto Pinochet. His reign was marked with human rights violations and the elimination of political enemies. Even 25 years after his loss of power and almost 10 years after his death, his iron fist can still be felt by Chileans today. Director Gabriel Osorio certainly felt the effects, as his grandfather was separated from his family during Pinochet's tenure. He made the allegorical Bear Story as a tribute to his grandfather. The film plays out as a film within a film. You have the story of the bear making his automaton and you have the story told by the machine. The automaton story is the one that attracts your attention, as it is a sad but charming tale told nicely with automated machines, while the bookend scenes are kind of slow and dry. However, you really have to take both sections into to get the full effect of the story. The automaton story is a bit too light when taken on its own, as it is rather anticlimactic and wraps up nicely with a happy ending, but when paired with the bookend scenes you see what director Osorio is insinuating. It's a rather effective piece of storytelling. The animation is well done, especially the automaton sequences. While the story is clearly too complex to fit into one small machine, the design is fairly quite ingenious, and is often reminiscent of the machines that feature so prominently in Martin Scorsese's Hugo. The bookend scenes are a bit more standard and are not much different from other animations of anthropomorphic animals, such as Disney's upcoming Zootopia. The film has no dialogue so much of the mood had to be elicited through the soundtrack, which does a serviceable job. Bear Story is a film that appears cute and charming on the surface, but contains some surprising depth.

It is a beautiful spring day in Greece around 390 B.C. Bees are buzzing around collecting pollen from flowers, while butterflies flutter around bringing a flash of color to the world. However, the placid scene is merely a mirage, for hidden in the tranquility of nature are four men from two of the strongest armies in the world willing to fight to the death for their beliefs. When the soldiers march into action nobody is prepared for the amount of pain and suffering that they will induce on not just each other through their violence, but those around them as well. Richard Williams is kind of a legend in the animation business. He won an Oscar back in 1972 for his adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, and then a Best Visual Effects and an honorary Oscar for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He is probably best known for his unfinished masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler, a film that was so mind-blowing in execution that the studios couldn't help but tinker with it and ruin it, turning it into the mangled The Princess and the Cobbler. Twenty years after that fiasco, Richard Williams is finally back to make a film that he's wanted to make almost his entire life, which turned out to be Prologue. The film opens with close-ups of colored pencils that were sharpened and put into action, which is highly reminiscent of Dusan Vukotic's Oscar-nominated anti-war classic Igra (The Game). However, the styles of the film themselves couldn't have been more different. While Igra uses simple stick figures to mimic the style of children's drawings, Williams has been pushing the boundaries of what can be done with animation throughout his career, and he wasn't about to stop now. Prologue captures the expression of complex emotions of its characters and the illusion of complex camera work all using hand-drawn animation. True, backgrounds are virtually non-existent, but it doesn't really matter as the film features some of the most realistic character design and level of detail that is hardly seen in animation, even in Disney's old Silly Symphony films that were known for its detail. However, while the animation is dazzling, the film's themes are a little bit more opaque. The title itself is not entirely explained. While everybody probably has their own theories about what Prologue indicates (I have my own, but I'll let you come up with your own when you watch the film), but it does seem like the film has an anti-war message with the depiction of graphic violence. True, the violence is nothing more than blood that spill out of stab wounds, but when you have characters that realistic you do start to feel the human element of the war. And that doesn't even get into the actual humanistic aspect of the film. The film's sound is populated by natural sound effects and grunts that adds to the feel of the film. At any rate, Prologue is a film from a master of animation that serves both as a message film and a technological showcase.

Sanjay's Super Team
It's Saturday morning, and little Sanjay wants to watch the animated adventures of his favorite super heroes, Super Team. He even has an action figure of the Super Team leader to accompany him. The problem is, his father is trying to pray and make an offering to his Hindu gods Vishnu, Durga, and Hanuman. He makes Sanjay join him in the prayer, much to Sanjay's disgust, but during the prayer Sanjay is sucked into the spiritual realm where the Hindu gods live. An antagonistic being named Ravana comes up and starts attacking the temple. Who would come and save the day? America is known as a melting pot, and that refers to the fact that much of the population is made up of people that immigrated from around the world. All of these immigrants bring their own cultural beliefs, and it often becomes a struggle to preserve these beliefs in the face of the dominant culture present in America. It's a challenge for many immigrants, especially if they have kids that grow up in the American culture. It's a story that is shared by many families, including that of Sanjay Patel, a Pixar animator who turned his own experiences into a semi-autobiographical short film, Sanjay's Super Team. Specifically, it connects the traditional Hindu cultural beliefs with American culture by reimagining the Hindu gods as super heroes of their own. The film begins with a cute little back and forth between Sanjay and his father (one ultimately won by his father, who holds the remote,) but the meat of the film is the action sequence in the middle where dastardly Ravana comes and attacks the statues of the gods. However, they come alive and fight back. The sequence is action packed and surprisingly exciting. It's also nice how the animation changes from the traditional Pixar CG-i style to a more cel-shaded look when the Hindu gods come to life. While the central action scene is the core of the movie, what really gives the film its gravitas is the human interaction between Sanjay and his father. The animation of humans has come a long way since Toy Story 20 years ago, and the film does very well in capturing the emotions of the characters, from the annoyance in young Sanjay and the frustration and disappointment in his father. I did have a concern that the film would have some cultural insensitivity, and while I'm not well versed in Hinduism, the culture is certainly not portrayed in a negative or stereotypical light. And as I mentioned earlier, I like how the film combines both the traditional CGI animation and a more cel-shaded look. I will admit that I haven't the biggest fan of many of Pixar's short films, but Sanjay's Super Team is certainly a solid film.

We Can't Live Without Cosmos
In wintry lands of Russia (or maybe the Soviet Union), there exists a school to find the next best cosmonaut to prepare for a highly anticipated mission into space. Of all of the cosmonaut candidates there are two of them that stand out head and shoulders above the others. But the two are not rivals but the very best of friends who constantly encourage the other to be the best that they can be and achieve their shared dream. But something comes up when they were so close to realizing the dream that puts their friendship to the test. Will their friendship suffer as a result of this incident, or is friendship really magic? We Can't Live Without Cosmos is the latest film by the Russian animator Konstatin Bronzit, the man behind the Oscar nominated Lavatory Lovestory, The film's title refers to a book that the two main characters read while they anticipate their flight, one that serves as a symbol of their goal of going into space. While the film is ostensibly about space, in reality the film appears to be about the power of friendship. The film is essentially divided into two halves, the first showing the strength of the main characters' bond as they dominate the rest of the field while the second addresses the challenges that they face after the incident. (I'm not going to mention what the incident is, but it is rather predictable, or at least I called it from the first time I read what the film was about.) The film's mood changes rather drastically between the first and second halves, where the first half is more light-hearted and funny while it becomes more somber in the second half. The contrast in the film's mood is somewhat drastic but does lend to the emotional effect. If you saw Lavatory Lovestory then you know that Bronzit utilizes a somewhat simplified animation style. We Can't Live Without Cosmos is quite similar. It has more detail than Lavatory Lovestory and has some nice use of special effects, but nobody is going to compare it to something like Prologue. The simplistic character design does somewhat clash with the intensity of the film's second half, but in some ways the difference between the animation style and the more sobering feel adds to the emotional gravity of the film. There is no dialogue, but the tender music does well in adding to the emotion. With Lavatory Lovestory Konstatin Bronzit establishes himself as somebody that isn't going to knock your socks off with superior animation but tells a good story with plenty of emotion, and We Can't Live Without Cosmos continues that tradition.

World of Tomorrow
One beautiful day, young Emily goes into a room and plays around with a ringing console. Somehow she picks up a signal from Emily, a clone of a clone of Emily (Prime) from 227 years in the future. She tells Emily Prime about the advancements that had been made in transference of consciousness to clones or digital media as well as time travel. She then uses time travel to bring Emily Prime into the future and introduces her to the magic of the outernet. And she also uses the time to show Emily Prime some of her more precious memories. However, in spite of all of the wonderful technological enhancements that the world of tomorrow holds, things may not be as peachy keen as everything seems to be. World of Tomorrow is the latest film from Texas-based animator Don Hertzfeldt, the man behind the Oscar nominated cult classic Rejected. He had build a name for himself with his deceptively simple art style that he pairs with dazzling camera work and practical special effects. He had long resisted entering the realm of digital animation, but finally succumbed to the pressure and purchased a tablet, which he used to make two short films as practice. One was a memorable but highly bizarre couch gag for The Simpsons, while the second became the Oscar nominated short film that I am reviewing right now. World of Tomorrow has the same simplistic character animation with stick arms and dot eyes that has become a feature of all of Hertzfeldt's work. However, he combines it with some special effects that can be done pretty much only on a computer. Many of the background effects in the Simpsons couch gag are present in World of Tomorrow. The animation style is part of the Hertzfeldt charm and is quite effective, although I will say that the characters are drawn with their top teeth showing, and that often times make the characters look like they have pig's snout. But I digress.

What really makes World of Tomorrow special is not the animation style, but the themes. One major aspect of Hertzfeldt's work is not just the animation style, but the themes that he explores in his films, themes that often include death, loneliness, and the meaning of life. These are themes that were addressed in Hertzfeldt's It's Such a Beautiful Day and they are present here. The world of tomorrow that Hertzfeldt paints is quite a dismal place. While the users have perfected time travel and cloning, it comes at the cost of the characters' emotional well-being and sense of connection. People don't think twice about falling in love with inanimate objects and try to reason out what they are feeling. These are topics that have been addressed before, but the issues hit harder in this film, with much more profound truths than you might expect from an animated film. Fans of Rejected expecting another film with non-sequitur humor are sure to be disappointed. Oh, there is humor, and many of it is random, but for every laugh in World of Tomorrow you get a gut punch feeling of sadness and despair. This is macabre film. Much of the film's humor comes from the interaction between Emily and Emily Prime, who were voiced wonderfully by Julia Pott and Winona Mae respectively. Pott is an animator behind films such as Belly, which qualified for the Oscar back in 2012. She perfects the deadpan delivery perfect for a character like Emily that is trying to figure out her emotions. Meanwhile, Winona Mae is Hertzfeldt's young niece, who was recorded playing and conversing with her uncle a la the Hubleys in Moonbird and Windy Day. Emily Prime's innocence contrasts well with Clone Emily's worldliness and injects the film with humor and pathos. It will break your heart but you will laugh doing it. World of Tomorrow is a rare film that will make you stop and contemplate your way of life. It is as much edifying as it is entertaining, and that is a sign of a great film.


Well here we go. The Best Animated Short nominees from 2015. This is a very solid lineup. Each film is terrific and would be deserving winners any other year. You might have to go all the way back to 1995 before you get to a year where all of the nominees were great. However, while all of the nominees were great 20 years ago, there was one that stood out in A Close Shave. Similarly, while all of the nominees this year are great, there is one that stands out and from how much I wrote about it you can probably tell it is World of Tomorrow. Maybe I'm biased, but that film stands so far ahead of the others that it's almost unfair, except I don't think that it has a chance of winning. As much as I love this category, I'm not usually very good at predicting the winner as the Academy hadn't followed any sort of a pattern. But it's pretty clear that World of Tomorrow is too bleak and dreary to appeal to the Academy.

As far as who the winner will be, Sanjay's Super Team had been the front-runner back before the longlist was announced, and it's still seen as the front-runner now. I'm not quite as optimistic about its chances. It has been 14 years since Pixar last won (in 2001 with For the Birds), and while some people feel that voting for the Indian film will be a way for the Academy to battle the recent diversity controversy, I think the presence of a different religion might be a turnoff for the more conservative Academy. I'm actually going on a limb and thinking Prologue, not only because it was the last film I've seen (having to travel two hours to watch it), but also because of the remarkable technological achievement that Richard Williams achieves. But who knows? I'm just a lowly blogger of something I don't actually know that much about, and I'm dictated by my biases like everybody else. But we shall see.

My rankings (by quality)
World of Tomorrow > Sanjay's Super Team > Prologue > We Can't Live Without Cosmos > Bear Story

My rankings (by preference)
World of Tomorrow > We Can't Live Without Cosmos > Sanjay's Super Team > Bear Story > Prologue  

1 comment:

  1. Well, it's that time of year again, time for me to stop ignoring my blog and actually write something for once. With all but one of the nominees seen and reviewed, I'm at the point where I'd either have to write some content about topics that are not related to this category or wait around for the nominees every year.

    You can always write about award winning animated shorts seen in other festivals during the year (like Annecy or Ottawa or such).