Thursday, February 19, 2015
Recent Watches: 2015 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts
I’ve gotten quite use to watching the Oscar-nominated short films. Over the last few years, video-on-demand distribution has allowed the shorts to be widely seen. This way, cinephiles can experience films that were formally really seen outside of the Academy. I especially look forward to the Animated Shorts, as there’s usually one incredible gem each year.
This year, however, something went screwy. My cable provider screwed up. The sound on the Animated Shorts was barely passable. For some reason, the dialogue would fluctuate wildly between normal, barely audible, and completely silent. For the animated shorts, which usually feature little dialogue and instead focus on music, this was more of an annoyance then a straight-up inhibitor. Unfortunately, it made the live action shorts completely unwatchable, forcing me to give up within minutes. So unless Comcast gets its shit together by tomorrow afternoon, it’s unlikely I will see the Live Action Shorts. I’m pretty pissed off about this.
Anyway, here’s the review of the animated shorts. Like every year, it’s an uneven batch but there are a few worthwhile entries.
Me and My Moulton
“Me and My Moulton” is a bittersweet story of childhood. The middle daughter, right between her oldest and youngest sisters, wonders about her parents. Her father is the only man in Norway with a mustache and blind in one eye. Her mother fills the house with modern architecture, such as three-legged chairs that frequently fall over. Her parent’s eccentric behavior embarrasses the girl though she’s not sure why. Her best friend down stair has a manly father, a great dog, and awesome bike. When the daughters ask their parents for a bike, they are gifted with a Moulton, a bizarre, impractical model. The daughters are disappointed but pretend to love it anyway.
“Me and Moulton” has a deceptively simple animation style. The character designs aren’t much more then simple stick figures with some slight details. However, eventually more depth is reveal. The leaves on the tree look like stained glass and change colors with the season. The look of the film takes some getting used to but it eventually grew on me.
As for the story, “Me and My Moulton” does a good job of suggesting the meloncholey of childhood. The girl is baffled by her parent’s choices and sometimes actively resents them. She can’t express these feelings because she does love her parents. They move inward, actually causing the girl clinical depression. Something else I like about the film is the way it contrasts the seemingly sunny childhood with unexpected darkness. An anecdote from her grandmother causes the girl to imagine her house burning down and standing in the nude outside. The story behind the name of the neighbor’s dog casually mentions death and starvation. For all its confusion and meloncholey, the tone of “Me and My Moulton” is ultimately happy, the short ending on a memory of a joyous Christmas morning. While the presentation is slightly off-putting, this is a mostly successful story about a child learning about compromise for the first time. [6/10]
The Bigger Picture
A British short, “The Bigger Picture” tells a simple story. Two brothers live with their elderly mother. One brother is more successful while the other doesn’t work, staying at home and taking care of his ailing mom. He resents his brother’s success. Mom’s health worsens, forcing the two of them to put their differences aside.
I suspect “The Bigger Picture” got nominated not for its story but for its visual presentation. The short mixes traditional animation with stop-motion. So the characters are usually flat illustrations but when they move forward, their arms are clay-mation. The best use of this visual gimmick is when water is portrayed as vibrating clear foil. However, the gimmick can’t disguise the horribly unappealing character designs. Moreover,“The Bigger Picture” is saddled with horribly unlikable characters and a depressing tone. The older brother is a pompous snob. The younger brother is hateful and mean-spirited. The mother, of course, dies. The ending suggests the brothers might be happy that their mom is dead. Eww. Though somewhat interesting to look at, this short is ultimately unpleasant to watch. [5/10]
A Single Life
“A Single Life” is the shortest of the presented films, running a whole two minutes. It’s a clever, gag-based toon. A single woman has a new record arrive on her doorstep. She notices that, by moving the needle up and down the single, she travels backwards or forward through time. She quickly visits her childhood before leaping ahead to marriage, pregnancy, and being old. The punchline is expected but delivered amusingly.
The animation of “A Single Life” is CGI but suggests stop-motion. The look of the main character, a nice balance between cartoony and ugly, is appealing. The central joke of the short is delivered totally visually, as there’s no dialogue in the short at all. The audience figures out what’s happening at the same time the character does, which makes for a nice surprise. Yes, the title is a pun but one that takes a minute to catch. If stretch any longer, “A Single Life” probably wouldn’t have worked but two minutes is the perfect length for it. The short is a nice dose of cartoonish humor, especially needed after the dour “The Bigger Picture.” [7/10]
The Dam Keeper
“The Dam Keeper” is the longest of the evening’s shorts, running a little over twenty minutes. The keeper of the dam is a cute, cartoon pig of elementary school age. The overlooks an idyllic little town. He makes sure the windmill at the top of the dam keeps spinning. If it stops, a black smoke will consume the village. The job leaves the little pig covered in soot and grim, making him unpopular at school. He is frequently teased and bullied because of this. He might have finally found a friend when he meets a little fox that likes to draw with charcoal, who doesn’t mind soot and dirt. Things don’t always go smoothly though.
“The Dam Keeper” is an emotional roller coaster that left me in tatters. Anyone who was bullied in school will probably relate far too much to the little pig’s plight. As he steps onto the school bus, he is pelted with trash and called names. One especially cruel rejection comes when a girl places her bag on the seat next to her. The little pig has to sit alone in the back of the bus. The fact that I’ve always loved pigs just makes me like him more and find the cruelty he faces more effective. Gaining a friend, in the form of the illustrating fox (whose name is, amusingly just Fox), is enough to lift his spirits. A sequence that has the two mocking a pair of bullies is both funny and really touching. However, things go wrong. A black smog drifting over the town, blotting everything in darkness, is a perfectly suitable visual metaphor for how depression feels. I was really wondering how dark “The Dam Keeper” would go but, luckily, it has a happy ending. I really wanted everything to work out for the little guy.
The animation is lovely, done in a sketchy, painterly style. The animals of the story have the right balance of cute and natural. Save for an opening-and-closing narration, there’s no dialogue in the film. Thus, the film relies on the expressive, nuanced musical score to emphasize its strong emotions. A film making me both laugh and cry with this much skill is a real sign of quality. Just like its porcine protagonists, I’m really rooting for “The Dam Keeper” to win on Sunday night. [9/10]
Not included with the on-demand package is “Feast,” the animated short that played in front of Disney’s “Big Hero 6” last year. The short is told from the perspective of Winston, an adorable Boston Terrier. From his earliest day, the pup has loved food. His guardian indulges this but always pouring a generous amount of his meals onto the dog’s food. As he grows, Winston develops quite the appetite for all sorts of food. When his owner starts dating the cute waitress from the restaurant down the street, things start to change. The girlfriend is a vegetarian, which means the guy becomes a vegetarian too. And since Winston eats what his owner eats, he is suddenly subsisting on Brussels sprouts and leeks. The dog is none too pleased about this. Yet, when the relationship seemingly ends, and the man’s slovenly diet resumes, Winston’s joy is short lived.
As with 2013’s “Paperman,” “Feast” is brought to life with cell-shaded animation which nicely splits the difference between traditional animation and computer generated animation. This gives it a colorful, playful tone. Disney is especially good about creating lovable animals. Winston is no different. His eyes and face are especially expressive. Its successful exaggerates the already expressive face dogs already have. This is the way cartoons are supposed to work. If you’ll excuse the pun, “Feast” is definitely a feast for the eyes.
“Feast’s” story is cute and funny. The dog’s love of food is nicely conveyed, especially in the way he gorges himself on bacon and eggs or cheesy nachos. We see his master’s life grow through the dog’s eyes, which is a nice touch. As someone who raised by a vegetarian, but could never subsist on a vegetarian diet, I can definitely relate to Winston’s frustration with the change of menu. The last act does a good job of illustrating how we grow accustomed to the people around us. The conclusion is very cute and somewhat touching. “Feast” will probably win the Oscar, even though it’s not the best of the presented shorts, but it’s still a delightful little film. [8/10]
Every year, Shorts.tv includes some highly commended shorts along with the nominated ones. “Sweet Cocoon” is a very goofy French short about a chubby caterpillar unable to get in his cocoon. The humor is slapstick-y and the CGI animation is a bit too stretchy for my taste. The punchline is amusing though. Bill Plymton’s “Footsteps” is imaginative, full of the director’s beautiful hand-drawn animation, and ends fantastically. I’m not sure why it wasn’t nominated. “Duet” is a fluid bit of animation showing the parallel lives of two young people through abstract, star-like shape. It’s lovely and sweet but too minor to be nominated. “Bus Story” is the most dialogue heavy of the shorts which means it was the most hampered by my technical problems. Even if I heard all of it, I probably wouldn’t like it. The character designs are ugly, the humor is mean-spirited, and I didn’t care for the story much.
The best thing about seeing the Oscar-nominated shorts is that there’s usually one genuine classic every year. Sometimes there are duds too but this is unavoidable. I won’t miss “The Bigger Picture” but I’d gladly return to “The Dam Keeper” or “Feast.” That’s the joy of discovery, man.