2011 has been widely considered a poor year for Animated Features. While I myself don’t feel like the animated films this year are a complete bust, I can understand some of these sentiments. However, looking at this year’s crop of “Best Animated Short” nominees,” you find that things don’t look so bad in animation after all. I’m amazed how even after revolutionary animated films like Toy Story 3 and Shrek, I can still find myself in awe when witnessing marvels in computer-animated technology. This was the case for many of the nominated films I saw at the NuArt theater in Los Angeles this weekend. While some I may not have completely fallen in love with, there is no denying that every single nominated film pushed the boundaries in animation on some level. In other words, I never witnessed anything I had seen in prior animated material. With that said, here are my official reviews of each of the 2012 Academy Award nominated films for “Best Animated Short:”
This little animated film, directed by Canadian director, Patrick Doyan, is pretty much the Seinfeld of its animated medium. The film really is about nothing all but also about everything at the same time. The story chronicles a boy’s entire “Sunday,” beginning from when his overbearing parents drag him out of bed to attend church, and closes with a beautiful final shot of the city’s factory after the family is driving home following an event-filled day. I love the way the film never tries to give viewers any concise narrative path to follow. Everything we see is random, just like the actual experiences of a real boy. The animation is relatively simple with sharp lines and basic shapes, but uses exaggerated expressions to great comedic effect. We chuckle when the boy studies the adults with a weary gaze, who to him talk in the same cackling/aggravating voice as the crows. Each adult figure seems larger than life, because the boy is so small in stature. We understand the ways in which adults can seem monstrous, intimidating, overbearing, and even a bit foolish at times. As adults, we often forget what we appear like from the viewpoint of a child. Sunday/Dimanche reminds us of this lost impression. There are wonderful and imaginative scenes lingered throughout the boy’s “Sunday” adventure, most specifically the bear whose head is trapped inside a hole in a house, resembling a stuffed animal head. Whether the bear is real or just a part of the boy’s imagination is up for debate, but the fantasy elements that spring forth from such imagination do make us yearn for such imaginative times that childhood had to offer. The film may seem inconsequential or unimportant to most viewers wanting a straight-forward narrative, but I understood Doyan’s vision and intent with this little film. It’s chances of winning are slim, but there is a jovial charm about Sunday/Dimanche that I find rare and refreshing.
Country of Origin: Canada. Running Time: 10 Minutes.
A Morning Stroll: (***1/2)
This gem of a film not only illustrates the progresses made in animation but also the declining social behaviors mankind exhibits. The film begins in 1959, where the animation is made up of lines and geometric shapes without definition. Instead of the narrative revolving around the classic riddle, “Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?,” the film posits, “Why Did the Chicken Stay On One Side of the Road?” The chicken is the constant throughout each fifty year span. As the chicken begins his daily march from around the street corner and into an apartment, whose door is always opened for him, the behaviors of people begin to change as does the animation style. In 1959, a man observes the chicken with attentiveness, proving this generation to still be in awe at the extraordinary. Forward fifty years later, and a kid with an iPhone doesn’t even notice the chicken and also fails to care about running into a plump woman, who spills her coffee on herself as a result. 2009 marks the end of social recognition and etiquette. Another 50 years in 2059, and the apocalypse has arrived with computer-generated animation completely engulfing the world. Without spoiling what happens in the final year captured in the animated film, I will just say that it’s one of the best animated sequences I have ever witnessed. The use of graphic content and high octane action, which is animated without flaw, is truly impressive. The final scene does leave questions unanswered, but its just a small complaint I have over the one hundred year journey we took with the chicken who did not cross the road. Director Grant Orchard is a visionary, and I would greatly like to see what type of work he would produce if given leeway to make a full length animated feature.
Country of Origin: United Kingdom. Running Time: 7 Minutes.
Wild Life (***)
Wild Life is the second Canadian nominated film in this awards category, but still doesn’t quite prove itself to be a legitimate contender. For two previous nominated directors in this category, I was expecting a lot more from Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby. The film’s story about a naive young British man emigrating to Canada to become a rancher is often times more poetically told than it needs to be. I understand the use of the intertitles where a comet is seen as a metaphor for the rancher, but film is a bit too muddled in literary technique and intellectual babble for its own good. Viewers trying to watch a narrative unfold in front of them won’t like the jarring effect of an intertitle that not only disrupts the seamless narrative but also makes them feel like they are back in ninth grade English. The rancher’s existence is doomed from the start, making it a tragic experience watching his journey unfold when you can predict the ending result. There are moments of humor that lighten the overall dark mood of the story, which gives the short film a balanced flavor of emotions. On paper, this is a well-executed, highly ambitious film, but in the end its clinical methods of illustrating the rancher’s story gives the film an unnatural and forced quality. I don’t think the film is bad — it had me compelled at several points, especially in the final few frames — but as a whole it’s not something many would care to remember after they have left the screening. Perhaps Forbis and Tilby should step off their pedestals of elitist film-making and come back down to planet earth. They have remarkable talent, but something is missing between the stories they put out and the viewers that absorb them.
Country of Origin: Canada. Running Time: 13 Minutes.
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore: (****)
If any animated company were to ever surpass Pixar, it would be Moonbot Studios. Not only is this the best animated short I have personally seen, but it is also the single best animated work to come out of 2011, surpassing Rango and The Adventures of Tintin: Rise of the Unicorn. Director William Joyce, who was the concept and art designer for Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, proves he’s just as adept a screenwriter and director. The film is this generation’s Wizard of Oz except in reverse. We start off in a color-filled world, with author Morris Lessmore working on one of his many books, but then a hurricane ravages the neighborhood, eradicating color from the world and blowing away the ink from Lessmores’ novels. After a beautifully re-imagined sequence that pays homage to L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, where the house spins in a black-and-white drenched skyline alongside bikes that are being ridden in the air, Lessmore finds himself devoid of life, devoid of color, and devoid of his fully-inked novels. He is greeted by the best version of Humpty Dumpty in cinema, who befriends him and hopes that Lessmore is able to once again bask in the warmth of color. Lessmore regains color through the aid of an ethereal woman who roams the sky, dropping off books to those in need. These books fill the black-and-white hurricane victims with color and life. Lessmore then begins a journey to rebuild his book collection, giving the town a reason to live once again. I absolutely cherish the idea of books reinvigorating one’s life force. Books were the first medium to spread fictionalized stories en masse, where people would bask in them to escape into imaginative worlds full of wonder and carefree joy. This film is uplifting even if its message is primarily about a person’s responsibility to preserve and pass along. Morris Lessmore isn’t an obvious hero, but he is certainly a necessary one in today’s times where computer technology is threatening to destroy books for good. The animation sequences in the film push boundaries and carry us to the plains of imaginative freedom. However, I don’t get the sense that Joyce’s animated masterpiece wants to be showy or attention-grabbing. Everything, even if extraordinary, seems relatively in line with the fantasy tone of the film. This animated short impresses so much because its goal is not to impress — it’s merely to remind us of the everlasting power that books hold for imaginative minds. The final moments of the film nearly made me, a twenty-two year old grown man, come close to tears. This may be one of the rare occasions where a film surpasses the quality threshold that Pixar firmly held on to. If this film does not nab an Oscar, it will be as big an injustice as if, say, Viola Davis were to lose her Academy Award to Meryl Streep.
Country of Origin: USA. Running Time: 15 Minutes.
La Luna: (**1/2)
Yes, the bad year for Pixar does not begin and end with Cars 2. If La Luna did not have Pixar’s studio name backing it up, it would certainly not have been nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Animated Short.” Nothing about this short film seems revolutionary, brilliant, or any of the other usual adjectives that are associated with Pixar. The animation itself is nothing special — we have seen it all before in countless other short films and full-length features — so why on earth is this film in contention for the win? The Academy has always favored Pixar except on rare occasions, and if many have not seen some of the shorts, they may just give La Luna the win the based on Pixar’s track record. It’s a sad thought, but a likely outcome. Part of La Luna’s problem is that it relies too much on cutesy animation, grumpy old men banter, and a ending gimmick that isn’t as noteworthy as director Enrico Casarosa seems to think it is. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, as it may spoil the final surprising reveal, but I will say a boy and two elderly men who accompany him on a rowboat have something to do with the moon. Yep, that’s all you are getting from me for a synopsis. Anything else and you need to see the actual film. Who am I kidding? If the film has ‘Pixar’ as its backed-studio, you’d see it even if there was a spinoff of Cars’ most hated character, Mater. The studio name itself should be enough to warrant checking it out, but be assured that if you are coming away expecting the same caliber as Up and Toy Story 3, you will find yourself in a whirlwind of disappointment and pain. La Luna is easily the weakest of the five nominated animated flicks for “Best Live Action Short,” but never discount Pixar when it comes to grabbing an Oscar. However, the Cars 2 omission in the “Best Animated Feature” category should rightfully bump The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore into the winner’s circle.
Country of Origin: USA. Running Time: 7 Minutes.
So for those of you who are curious to see how I would rank the five films, here they are:
1. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
2. A Morning Stroll
4. Wild Life
5. La Luna
And there you have it! I hope all of you get a chance to check out the Oscar Animated Shorts before the Academy Awards on February 26th. Please share your thoughts below in the comments section, and tell me your favorites from this lineup!