Monday, March 01, 2010

Best Animated Short Nominees - 2009

I can't believe it's been almost a whole month since the Academy Award nominees were announced. The award ceremony is less than a week away! Last year at around this time, I wrote about the nominees for my favorite category - Best Animated Short. The delay last year was because it just took me that long to watch all five nominees. (Eventual winner La Maison en Petits Cubes was hard to watch because ROBOT is very active in removing copies of the film on YouTube, and I had to resort to buying the DVD online. I ordered it shortly after the nominees were announced, and it didn't arrive until the week before the Oscars. It was well worth it.) This year, the Academy announced the shortlist back in November, so I had an early start in watching the nominees. I eventually got to see all of the nominees only a year after the nominees were announced. However, I just didn't bother to write this review. One reason is because the category just isn't too exciting this year.

The major Oscar storyline this year is the race between box office champ Avatar and critics/guilds darling The Hurt Locker (with Inglourious Basterds hanging in the wings as a dark horse). The Best Animated Short race was pretty much over the moment the shortlist was announced back in November. And to be honest, this list of nominees is kind of disappointing. One thing about having the shortlist is that it reveals the films the Academy COULD have nominated but didn't, and frankly the list of snubs are more interesting than the list of nominees. For example, the Academy passed on Pixar's Partly Cloudy. I know that Pixar's shorts haven't been as good as their feature films (a fact evident in the fact only three of their films have won despite nine nominations), but I felt certain it would get a nomination. The Academy also passed on films by two prior nominees: Cordell Barker's Runaway and Tomek's Baginski's The Kinematograph.* Finally, the most unforgiveable snub was that of Australia's The Cat Piano, a fine film you can still see on their website (and I definitely encourage you to watch it), and my favorite of the films I've seen on the shortlist.

*Barker was previously nominated for The Cat Came Back (1988) and Strange Invaders (2001). Baginski was nominated for Katedra (2002).

Anyways, I digress. While the nominees are not ideal, I don't want to detract you from seeing them. So let's move on to the reviews.

French Roast
French Roast is a simple little story about a man who went to a cafe for a drink of coffee. He refuses to give money to a homeless man, but because of that he didn't realize that he had forgotten his wallet until he gets the check. He keeps ordering coffee while trying to figure out what to do, but that makes things worse. A solution seems evident when a little old lady next to him turns out to be rich beyond his wildest dreams, but things don't quite turn out the way he expected.

French Roast was one of only two nominees that I correctly predicted. The computer animation is extremely basic, especially since we're used to seeing the vibrant worlds and character design of Pixar, Dreamworks, and even Blue Sky Studios. Yet the quality of the storytelling more than makes up for its weakness. I've seen one reviewer call the film sincere, and that's probably the best way to describe it. The makers knew exactly what they wanted to convey, and they tell it without any extra fluff. The filmmaking also helps to complement the story. The camera is mostly static, but the cafe is designed to have a giant mirror that lets you see the world outside of the restaurant. This set-up allows for limited camera movement, giving viewers a more complete picture of what's going on in the world. It's a brilliant achievement in storyboarding, and it leaves a satisfying taste in at least this particular viewer. French Roast ended up being my favorite of the nominees this year, although the overall simplicity of the tale may doom it from winning the award.

Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty
While French Roast is my favorite nominee, Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty is my sister's favorite. Based on a persona created by Irish comedienne Kathleen O'Rourke (who wrote the script and voiced the main character), Granny O'Grimm is an old lady who wants to be a good grandmother to her grandchild, but couldn't overcome the contempt she feels over the aging process. In this particularly film (which I guess will be the first in a series), Granny O'Grimm is trying to be nice and read her grandchild the story of Sleeping Beauty, but all of her bitterness spills over in the story, with hilarious results.

Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty is a lot like French Roast in that it has one story to tell, and it does it efficiently and effectively. The story was written by a comedienne, and as expected the script constantly targets your "funny bone." Jokes are fast and furious, and the conclusion is the most satisfying one of all. The animation also serves the storyline well. There is a 3D world inhabited by Granny and her unfortunate grandchild, as well as a 2D world within the story. The juxtaposition augments the story-within-a-story effect, and the funky character designs add to the comedic effect. Like French Roast, what ultimately brings down Granny O'Grimm is that while it tells its story well, the story just doesn't really have much substance, even when compared to films whose focus is comedy. So while it's good for a laugh every so often, it just doesn't have the powerful lasting impact of some of the greats. (The Critic, anyone?)

The Lady and the Reaper (La Dama y la Muerte)
This macabre little short from Spain features an interplay between three characters with three goals. There is an old lady who wants nothing more than to joint her late husband in the world beyond. The Grim Reaper is eager for another soul. However, there is also an arrogant young doctor (and his team of bimbo-ish nurses) who wants to add to his list of accomplishments. The three forces collide in a madcap and slapstrick adventure.

Just like how there are three characters at play in The Lady and the Reaper, there are three comparisons I can make with this movie. Like Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty (and like 2/3 of the other nominees throughout the history of this category), the primary goal of this film is humor. Like The Cat Concerto and many other shorts from the golden age of studio animation in the 1930s-1950s, its primary means of getting to this goal is through slapstick humor. But the film that this has the most similarity to is This Way Up, one of last year's nominees. Both films relied on slapstick to find humor out of death, and in my opinion both films kind of fell short. French Roast and Granny O'Grimm were films that knew exactly what they wanted to show and took no detours, but The Lady and the Reaper and This Way Up were films that went just about everywhere but never really got anywhere. It's almost as if the filmmakers were completing its storyboard and one person said, "Oh yeah, wouldn't it be funny if ____ happened?" And they threw it in. It was funny during the first half, but by the beginning of the second half I was just waiting for them to get to the conclusion...and there were three more minutes to go. I would ultimately rank The Lady and the Reaper ahead of This Way Up because it had three pretty good positives. It dealt with a rather serious issue that I may have to face as a physician, even if it was kind of muddled by the slapstick action. As a physician I may want to save every life, but I have to deal with the harsh reality that some people may not want to be resuscitated. Another positive was that this had a satisfactory ending. What really bothered me about This Way Up was that even though its action was funny, I really didn't like the ending. Finally, The Lady and the Reaper had an effective use of the classic song "We'll Meet Again," best known for its appearance in Dr. Strangelove.

The three previous shorts are all fine films in their own right (even if I just spent a while complaining about one of them), but to be honest the "race" is between these final two shorts. Logorama is certainly the most intriguing nominee this year. As its title suggests, Logorama is set in a world occupied by company logos and mascots, but what is shown is certainly not a typical day. Ronald McDonald is going on a crime spree, transporting illegal substances, and taking young Big Boy hostage. It's up to the Michelin Men to save the day, but can they do it?

From its very first shot, which is a still of the Malibu Rum logo followed by a zoom out to reveal the Microsoft Windows butterflies and the Pelforth Pelican (I had to look that one up), it's clear that Logorama isn't your typical animated short. It just blows you away with all of its logos and mascots. There are some that I never even knew exists (like the aforementioned Pelforth Pelican...hooray for not drinking beer!) The mere idea behind the short is a form of social commentary, about how ingrained we are in a world of giant business conglomerates. Each mascot or logo is a reminder of how these businesses are trying to lure consumers into making them even richer and richer. (It's kind of unnerving, especially after watching Food. Inc last night.) Another thing that makes Logorama different is its subject matter. Animation has been exploring the adult frontier ever since Fritz the Cat in 1972, but on the whole people still think of animation as kids fare. Logorama is not for kids. Ten profanities were used within the first two minutes (including my personal favorite, "that shit's fucked up," with a zoom cut for emphasis.) That's not even mentioning the violence or sexual innuendo. I've seen 295 of the 322 nominees throughout the history of the award (91.6%), and none of the films have the amount of profanity or violence seen in Logorama.*

*Although a few shorts best it in sexual content, including Bob Godfrey's Kama Sutra Rides Again and Dream Doll and NFC's Special Delivery, Hunger, and Bob's Birthday.

Anyways, I've established that Logorama is different, but the question now becomes, is it good? I think that question only depends on personal taste. I've seen the film about four to five times now, and I've warmed up to it, but I really hated it my first time. The problem I had with Logorama is the same problem I had with The Lady and the Reaper. I appreciate what it was trying to do, but the story feels random, circuitous, and incoherent. The film was entertaining, but the ending was so out in left field that it just didn't make sense at all. Now I kind of have an idea about what the filmmakers wanted to convey, but since the film was so over-saturated with logos, it took several viewings to do so. Would I have been willing to re-watch Logorama if it hadn't gotten nominated? Probably not. (As opposed to The Cat Piano or Chuck Jones's Hunting Trilogy, which I don't mind re-watching numerous times even without nominations.) My final opinion is that Logorama would be a film I would be willing to show a friend (for the creativity and because it's just so funny seeing Ronald McDonald go nuts), but I wouldn't label it as one of the best shorts of all time.

A Matter of Loaf and Death
Two shorts that I would classify as among the best shorts of all time are Nick Park's The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave. Nick Park, the creator of Wallace and Gromit, has had a virtually unprecedented success at the Academy Awards. He's won four times in five nominations, and the only time he's lost was to himself.*Anyways, in this latest Wallace and Gromit adventure, the lovable pooch Gromit and his imbecilic inventor-owner Wallace are working as bakers (presumably to help finance the latter's invention hobby.) A recent string of murders involving bakers has left business booming. A day after the murder of Baker Bob (the 12th victim), Wallace runs into the girl of his dreams: Piella Bakewell, the model for Bake-a-Lite bread. That leaves Gromit to not only take care of the business, but also to save his master when things don't quite turn out the way it seems.

*The rest of Aardman Animation hasn't quite had Nick Park's level of success. They're 0 for 3 in nominated films not directed by Nick Park. The other nominations were for Peter Lord's Adam (1991) and Wat's Pig (1996), and Peter Peake's Humdrum (1998).

There are few series in the history of animated shorts that match the success of Disney's Silly Symphonies (7 wins in 9 nominations) or Hanna-Barbera's Tom and Jerry (7 wins in 13 nominations). Wallace and Gromit is one of them. As I said before, the success is largely due to the fact that the Wallace and Gromit shorts are just great film. The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave manage to fit in more humor, suspense, twists, and endearing characters in 30 minutes than most feature length films in two hours. (Except my sister absolutely despises Wallace. She likes Gromit, but never liked the Wallace and Gromit films because she hates Wallace so much.) A Matter of Loaf and Death came over ten years after A Clove Shave, and it is evident early on that Nick Park has evolved as a filmmaker. He is able to use different shots or editing styles as a form of symbolism that he hadn't in the past. However, while his skills as a filmmaker has advanced, I'm not alone in my sentiments in thinking that this film doesn't hold up against the previous masterpieces.

Some reviewers complain that the film was too dark. While I agree that it was much darker than the other Oscar-winning W&G shorts (which were quite dark themselves), I didn't think that was the problem. Others complained that the jokes were old, but I felt that there were a lot of great comedic moments. What really got me was that the entire film seemed so forced, especially with the way it advanced their plots. One of the things that made the earlier shorts so great was their subtlety. The jokes and plot progression happened in a way that seemed to fit in nicely with the rest of the short. Viewers accepted them because it made sense within the context of the film. I didn't have that feeling with A Matter of Loaf and Death. It feels as though the storyline was forced onto you, and you just had to accept it. There was no more smooth transition between plot points as in The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave. Rather, each new plot point just...happened. There was no foreshadowing to ease you into it, and viewers had no other option but to say, "Okay...that was kind of random, but I'll accept it." It was like getting banged on the head with a rolling pin. Some of jokes had the same feeling, especially the Ghost reference, complete with "Unchained Melody" playing in the background.

But once I took a step back and stopped comparing it to Nick Park's previous efforts, it's clear that A Matter of Loaf and Death was by no means a bad film. As I said, there were still plenty of great comedic moments, and a lot of interesting use of filmmaking styles as a form of symbolism. And there was also good characters (although my sister would disagree about Wallace). A Close Shave had Shaun the Sheep (who was so popular that he eventually got his own spin-off sh0w). A Matter of Life and Death has Fluffles, the tormented poodle belonging to Piella Bakewell. She had great chemistry with Gromit, and also played a key role (although it was hard to bring her up in the synopsis section without spoilers). Overall, if you try not to compare it to The Wrong Trousers or A Close Shave, A Matter of Loaf and Death is an entertaining film with enough action, suspense, and comedy to keep you engaged the entire way through.

Wow...that went on for a lot longer than I had hoped. And as for my take on the Best Animated Short "race", the real competition has come down to Logorama and A Matter of Loaf and Death. While Logorama is a clever short that is starting to get a whole host of supporters among bloggers, I don't think it has enough to topple A Matter of Loaf and Death. While I spent an hour of my repro/OMM studying time criticizing the latter film's storytelling, but to be honest Logorama had the same storytelling problem and more of it. Furthermore, A Matter of Loaf and Death is by far the longest nominee - nearly twice the length as Logorama. Why is this important? It's just that the past several years, the Academy has had a tendency of voting for the longest nominee when voting for Best Animated Short. The last time the longest nominee failed to win was for 2002, when the 10-minute Atama-yama (Mt. Head) lost to the 5-minute The Chubb-Chubbs. Since then, the longest nominees are 6 for 6. And finally, the cardinal rule of Oscar predictors after 1995 was you DO NOT vote against Wallace and Gromit. That is all.

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