Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Best Animated Shorts - 2010

It's that time of the year again, when the excitement of the Baseball Hall of Fame vote has died down (Yey for Bert Blyleven!) and the Oscars are the only thing to tide me over until baseball season begins again. And like the past four years, the one category that I am following closely is that of Best Animated Short. In case this is your first time reading this, the Best Animated Short category was one that had fallen to the wayside for me until 2006, when I came to the realization that not only are they short and fun to watch (something I've known since I was a kid when I watched dozens of Oscar-nominated shorts without knowing it), but they are also incredibly easy to find! Since then, Best Animated Short has superceded Best Picture as my favorite category. Case in point: even though I didn't start watching Best Animated Short nominees until 2006, 8 years after I started trying to watch Best Picture nominees, I've still seen more of the Best Animated Short nominees, 301 (out of 327, 92%) to 231 (out of 485, 47%).

I've also done something with Best Animated Short I've never done for Best Picture: watch all of the nominees before the night of the actual ceremony. I've done this every year since 2007, when I went to the showing for Best Animated Short nominees in Washington DC. A year later, I watched all of the shorts without going to the showing, and wrote up a review for each of the nominees. Last year, I found the shortlist of ten a month before the nominations were announced, and I watched six of them before the nominees were announced, and saw all five nominees on the day of the nomination. This year, I tried to get a leg up by finding the longlist back in November. I had seen eight on the shortlist by the announcement, but even then there was one of the nominees that I hadn't seen. My sister and I tried to find the final short on video sites and bit torrents, but to no avail. In the end we sucked it up and bought the DVD, under the pretense of being a late birthday present. The DVD arrived two weeks ago, so it's been two weeks since I watched all the short, but I just hadn't had time to write the review. Now that it's three days before the Oscars, hopefully it is not too late. I apologize in advance if this will be largely incomprehensible, but that's what you get when you write four days before a major exam.

Day & Night
This is probably the one short that most people have seen, considering it played before Toy Story 3, the highest-grossing animated feature film in history. This ambitious short tells the story of two characters, one that exemplifies day and one that exemplifies night. Day is a chipper fellow whose outlook on life is the same as the bright sunny day that lives inside him. He meets Night, who he meets sleeping. Day scorns the darkness of Night's world. Night takes offense, and that sets off an epic fight between the two ends up into the sea. While recovering from the fight, Night realizes that there are some things that Day has that he doesn't, and vice versa. By the end of the short, the two new best friends realize that they're not so different after all.

Day & Night's story of acceptance has been told so often that it's virtually become a cliché, but it is still a memorable short. The film's style is its greatest strength. Day and Night are 2D characters whose bodies serve as windows into the same 3D world approximately 12 hours apart. Pixar is renowned for their 3D environments, but with Day & Night they show that they can still succeed with 2D designs. Day and Night are extremely vibrant characters that are greatly appealing. However, it is what's going on inside Day and Night that drives the film. It is the differences in presentation that drives the initial conflict between the two, but also what leads to their reconciliation. Night loves the hot suntanning babe he sees inside Day, but at the same location in himself, he sees only trash. However, Pixar doesn't clutter the worlds with extraneous items, showing only what is necessary to highlight the best of both worlds and to add to the ambient soundtrack. Yes, the film does admittedly get preachy near the end, when they bang the message into your head, but Day & Night is still a solid evidence of how Pixar is the greatest visual storytellers of our time.

*Despite what The Simpsons wanted you to think, Pixar really doesn't perform that well with the Best Animated Short category. Day & Night is the 10th nomination they had in the category, but they've only had three wins. It could be that they do so well in the Best Animated Feature category since its inception that the Academy doesn't want to award them twice in a year, but in my opinion their shorts haven't been as good as their feature films. (Frankly because they mostly go for laughs, but I've never been a big fan of Pixar's humor) Anyways, here's my ranking of their past Oscar nominated shorts.

10. Boundin' (2003) - Another message film, this time about believing in yourself, but this time the rest of the film doesn't make up for their beating the message in your head.
9. Mike's New Car (2002) - This was the first of the films that featured characters from one of their films. While this gag-filled film is funny, it doesn't come close to achieving the same impact as the film's original source: Monster's Inc.
8. Lifted (2006): It's funny, and you can probably empathize with the trainee, but it doesn't really succeed in being memorable.
7. One Man Band (2005): It was a lot better than I remember it being, but like many other films it doesn't do much to be memorable
6. For the Birds (2001): One of their three winners. This film tells its story well, and it is a technological marvel, but they made the big bird a bit too annoying that you may find yourself on the bully's side.
5. Presto (2008): I reviewed this film two years ago. It's a brilliantly madcap take that probably takes a few viewings to catch all the action.
4. Tin Toy (1988): Their first winner. Their baby is a bit on the unnerving side, but this film reaches new heights in giving emotions to toys. It is the precursor to Toy Story
3. Day & Night (2010): Even if I don't like how they beat the message into your head, this is still a milestone in visual storytelling.
2. Luxo Jr. (1986): It's not their first short, but the one that establishes Pixar as a company. It packs more in two short minutes than most films do in twenty (one of the films below is an example of that).
1. Geri's Game (1997): Yes, I am still a big fan of this short. Pixar's human character design in Tin Toy and Toy Story left more to be desired, but with this short they found their story. Combine with a simple but effective story and brilliant editing and you've got yourself a winner - literally.

The GruffaloAfter a close run in with a hawk, a mother squirrel (Helena Bonham Carter) comforts her two kids with a story about a mouse (James Corden) who took a walk in a deep dark wood, but the problem is that a group of predators (Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, and Rob Bryden) thinks he looks good - and we're not talking about his appearance. The mouse scares them away with a tale about being friends with a horrible, monstrous creature named the Gruffalo. But things change when he meets a real Gruffalo (Robbie Coltrane), who has no intentions of being best buddies.

The Gruffalo is really a lovely short. The film is computer generated but has the appearance of being stop-motion. The woods that the mouse walks through is a vibrant but violent place. The atmosphere is great. The constant images of death serves to underscore the constant danger that the mouse is in, and the snake is just creepy. The soundtrack is also haunting but beautiful. And it does have an all-star voice cast, who does a great job, except when Carter goes too far with "Hmm..". While the film is a visual treat, the story leaves a little more to be desired. The Gruffalo is a BBC adaptation of a popular children's book in Britain. That leads to two problems: First of all, the story is clearly aimed toward children. There really isn't much twist and turns at all, and it gets kind of repetitive. Second, being a BBC special it has to take up 25 minutes. That's going to create some problems when you've only got 5 minutes worth of story. In other words, it's a dlightful treat, but it's not for everyone.

Let's PolluteLet's Pollute is an "educational film" about what it takes to make the world a dirtier, grimier place. It goes through the history of pollution, explores the factors promoting pollution, and finally gives us a couple of tips to make us the best little polluters we can be.

This is a funny little satire about not only the state of the modern environmental movement, but also of the educational films that were popular in the 1950s and 60s, the types that you show in schools. It tried to achieve its satire by taking it to the extreme. That's not really going to lead to a memorable piece of work, considering it essentially on the same level as one-joke shorts (i.e. The Crunch Bird), but it should keep it entertaining. Although it's certainly possible some might find the joke getting old by the end. In this way, Let's Pollute is probably along the same vein as some of last year's nominees: films that are funny but don't do much beyond that. Of course, I will admit I've only seen the French dub that's filtering online, but I have a friend who was able to translate it, and it really wasn't much different than what I've gained from watching the film raw. That said, Let's Pollute does have an appealing hand drawn visual style.

The Lost ThingThis Australian fable set in a post-modern world tells the story of a boy who sees a mysterious "thing" on the beach as he was out collecting bottle caps. He connects with the thing, but when he finds that it has no owner or a home (in essence, lost), he takes it in, much to the chagrin of his parents. He sees a commercial about a government agency that takes in such things that have no home, but is that really the best place for his new friend?

Like The Gruffalo, The Lost Thing was based off of a picture book, but the two are very different films. (And I'm not talking about how The Lost Thing fits a more substantial story in a running time ten minutes shorter.) The Lost Thing is more of a parable for adults, using the dystopic world and the lost thing as symbols for our own madcap world and the things we may be missing. The film's design, loyally adopted from the original work by co-director Shaun Tan, serves to augment the film's message. The characters inhabit a type A world where everything is regulated, everything is automatic, and everybody minds their own business. The bizarre spontaneity of the lost thing is definitely out of place is such an environment. Their world is fully realized and wonderful, with lots of minute detail that requires multiple viewings to catch everything. (My favorite is the Chinese characters that appear every so often.) The film also pays homage to its picture book origin with a few clever scenes that with split screens that's laid out like books. The narration by Australian funnyman Tim Minchin is serviceable, but sometimes I wonder if it would be better if it was a wordless film driven by its soundtrack.

Madagascar, A Journey DiaryThis is quite literally a moving scrapbook about the sights and sounds experienced by director Blastien Dubois on a trip to the island nation of Madagascar, the highlight of which is experiencing Famadihana, a ritual ceremony about turning of ancestors' bones.

As a visual scrapbook, Madagascar, A Journey Diary is a bit lacking on the story, but it is a dazzling piece of work. The film is full of the wonders of Madagascar, both natural and cultural, which are beautifully designed in journal format, complete with notes or . The best part about the film is the juxtaposition of an eclectic selection of film styles. For example, you would have one scene that is done in a smooth watercolor that is common through the film, and the next scene you have one that's designed like stop motion animation. It becomes like a treat to see what style will come up next. The music is also very ethnic, coming from a real Madagascan band. The climactic scene with the Famadihana is also well done, showing off the ecstasy of the crowd. Yet it also comes with an unnerving element as in spite of the celebration, you're still dealing with death. The rest of the film is a delight, presenting the citizens and their reactions to the foreigner, provided you can overlook the lack of a narrative flow.


Okay, so hopefully you can overlook the entire incomprehensibility of my writing and get an idea about the shorts. But all that means nothing if you don't try to pick a winner, because what else is the Academy Award for? In my opinion the best short this year is Day & Night. That doesn't necessarily take away from the nominees, all of which are great shorts that I enjoyed, but Pixar's lastest short is stylistically innovative while also telling a good story. However, I don't think it's going to win. It's just like two years ago when there was talk of there being an anti-Pixar slant in the Best Animated Short category ever since the Best Animated Feature category was created. They seem a bit wary in awarding Pixar the award for animated feature AND the award for animated short. After all, Pixar has never won both in the same year. (Their only win in animated short came in 2001, when they won for For the Birds, but lost the feature Oscar to Shrek.) Is that fair? Not really, but it's what the Academy likes, and the Academy likes it when they make Pixar share the love.

So if Day & Night is not going to win, who will in its place? All signs seem to point toward The Gruffalo. First of all, at 25 minutes it's the longest nominee, and we all know how much the Oscar loves those long nominees. Second of all, it's a beautiful, well-made piece, which would justify the award for many voters. And finally there seems to be a lot of love for The King's Speech this year, and it's very likely that The Gruffalo, being from Britain, can get swept up in the lovefest. Sure, it doesn't have much of a storyline for the running time, but that's never stopped the Academy before. (Peter & the Wolf is an example.)

Anyways, I hope that this was somewhat readable. And I hope that you find a way to watch the nominees somehow. Meh.

No comments: