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Short Stuff: The 2015 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts
by Jay Seaver

Of the three short film awards presented at the annual Oscars ceremony, the animation category is where most people are likely to feel some sort of routing interest because there's generally one entry that played before a feature, and this got seen, and thus made the viewer feel some sense of ownership. That one tends to win a lot, and often has a good argument, because it's got not just visibility, but the budget and technical resources of a major studio behind it, compared to the independent or student productions it's competing with.

There's one of those this year, "Sanjay's Super Team". What's unusual is that there might also be the perception of a race, as one of the other entries, "The World of Tomorrow", has had buzz attached to it ever since playing Sundance a year ago, getting a lot more articles written than the average short. There's also a new work from a director who is unfortunately best known for the project he didn't get the chance to complete (Richard Williams's "Prologue"), and two from outside the English-speaking world - Chile's "Bear Story" and "We Can't Live without Cosmos" from Russia.

Because animated films are generally much shorter than their live action counterparts the program of nominated shorts that is playing theaters (and will be available for download/streaming on 22 February) is generally padded out with a few other "highly commended" films from the nomination shortlist, and this year is no exception. What is a bit unusual is the arrangement; while those films generally come after the nominees, this year "Prologue" is given the last slot and there were advisories both at the box office and during the presentation itself that while the other films are suitable for young viewers, that one is not. Some in the audience snickered at this, only to find out that the people using the warning aren't kidding. It certainly allows the program to show the true breadth of what the medium can do, if nothing else.

As much as "Sanjay's Super Team" is a delightful little animated short - which it is - there seems to be something significant about it playing in thousands of theaters right before a major release on a holiday weekend as opposed to as part of an animation program at a film festival. If it's not quite something that doesn't feel the need to explain a specific culture to its mainstream American audience, it's awfully close.

It's also plenty entertaining use of that sort of context, telling a simple story of a boy watching a superhero cartoon on television while his father attempts to worship and meditate on the other side of the room, only to insist young Sanjay join him. It's a cute little second-generation culture clash, put together with plenty of charm and giving impressively subtle personalities to both father and son. It would be easy to exaggerate either, but instead they're quietly different enough that their not connecting is sort of sad. If that were all the movie was, it would still be impressive.

But it's got a big segment in the middle that's equally inspired by American superheroes and Hindu mythology, and it's a grand, colorful bit of action, genuinely surprising and kind of tense in how it plays out, in part because of how it reflects Sanjay's childish fears of upsetting his father or even doing real damage by extinguishing a candle, and in part for how it's impressively choreographed and put together, using the fact that the shrine is a box to create natural bounds for a 3D presentation (as it had when attached to Inside Out. The contrast with the real world is great, but the two halves of the short strengthen rather than distract from each other.

It is downright exciting to see Don Hertzfeldt getting the sort of praise he is receiving for "World of Tomorrow", especially since it is not nearly as dry as some of the more obviously weighty films he had done in recent years - it is very funny, and not in the "if I don't laugh I'll cry" way of his trilogy about a man with a terminal illness ("Everything Will Be OK", "I Am So Proud of You", and "It's Such a Beautiful Day"). Or at least, not obviously in that way. I think what makes "World of Tomorrow" kind of amazing is that it combines everything Hertzfeldt has done - the anarchic comedy of his early shorts, the grand scale of "The Meaning of Life", and the heartbreak of the recent trilogy - in a way that cheats none of it. It's a view from high up that allows things to be both hilariously absurd and genuinely tragic.

The idea is impressively simple - a girl of about three is visited by a woman hailing from 227 years in the future who is either herself or her great-great-granddaughter, depending how you reckon giving birth to a clone body that will have one's own memories transferred into it, and takes a trip to the elder Emily's time. The details, though, are fantastic, the sort of weird science fiction extrapolations that won't make it into a live action or CGI film that costs tens of thousands of dollars for each second rendered, but which Hertzfeldt's trademark sketches and stick figures give him the latitude to pull off. Things are funny and amazing and sometimes horrifying, but never, ever, conventional.

And the contrast between the two Emilys is all of those things in spades. Little Emily is adorable and funny; we laugh and coo at how she isn't particularly impressed by what future-Emily considers important because she's a preschooler, while future-Emily blows right past "Twenty-third Century people sure are different" to having real psychological problems. It's innocently and edgily funny at the same time, and we can barely conceive that this carefree kid will grow up to be that mess of neuroses. And yet, Hertzfeldt carefully steers it away from "this must be changed"; as sad as she may be, and how her world is a horror-show of impending catastrophe and unfairness, the solution is not self-erasure or putting a terrible weight on a child, but instead trying to rediscover what it is like to be happy. That's brilliant, and it comes as part of a fifteen-minute bit of weird science fiction that is played out by stick figures.

The music-box style of "Bear Story" is impressive and solid enough to trick the viewer into thinking it is stop-motion rather than created using digital tools, and that's an impressive bit of artifice on multiple levels. It makes the story subjective and human, even if it is being presented by anthropomorphic bear. He's skilled and intelligent, even if he is likely presented as an animal kidnapped by a circus in order to give the film a bit of metaphorical distance from the real-life "disappearings" that likely served as inspiration. And it gives the sort a sense of wonder, as the imitation of another art form sets unconscious limits in the viewer's mind, only to have director Gabriel Osorio Vargas and his oso defy them.

It's a harrowing tale he tells, with shadowy kidnappers, grand escapes, and a subsequent search for the family he lost. Bits are left for the audience to extrapolate - the pair of impressions on the matter bed, the lack of one in the son's room - and the music by Dėnver evokes the simple melodies of the music box while still allowing the story to play bigger.

As much as "Bear Story" impresses on first blush, it grows with reflection; it feels as though Vargas has created something very personal that also comments upon how art works without being so inward-facing as to ignore the audience.

I don't know if there's a specific incident in the Soviet space program referenced in "We Cannot Live Without Cosmos", but like many of the nominees, it grows upon further thought. As one watches it, is easy to get caught up in the story and the gags - writer/director Konstantin Bronzit displays a gentle sense of humor in the early going, and the story that eventually emerges of two friends or brothers constantly trying to one-up each other in cosmonaut training, a clearly friendly rivalry. And then things go wrong.

Interestingly, Bronzit doesn't noticeably change his approach after that happens - the jokes certainly become darker, but there are funny bits all the way to the end, with great characterization despite the lack of dialogue and deceptively simple character designs. The style at least mimics cel-based animation, and it gives the film a great deadpan style.

I suspect that the arc of the story parallels the relationship many of us have had with the space program - an unconditional love that borders on obsession until a tragedy that, even if we're just fans, feels like such a betrayal as to create a complete loss of faith. Maybe we come to love it again later, but it's different, no longer so magical, more obviously populated by the grimly practical people than dreamers.

For someone who is revered by many as a pioneer, Richard Williams is best known for something which didn't come off (his animated feature The Thief in the Cobbler, in production for nearly thirty years, taken away from him when he could not hit a schedule). Given that this happened over twenty years ago, one can be forgiven for believing him retired; it's a bit of surprise to see him return with "Prologue", although one can also see how there has always been a disconnect between his talent and his ability to reach an audience.

The draftsmanship and smoothness of the animation is phenomenal, after all, starting out with the nifty effect of a drawing that is clearly two-dimensional and seemingly static - a flower, in this case - taking on life and seeming to pop out of the screen as a bee moves about inside it. From there if moves on to depict warriors in ancient Greece in a brutal, bloody battle witnessed by a small, terrified child. It's astonishing in its realization; Williams's fine pencil work is brilliant, but his fight choreography is engaging and for something clearly done in a two-dimensional medium, the camera seems to move as fluidly as it does in media designed to replicate three-dimensional space. It's virtuoso work from a master.

it's worth remembering that the distributor is not kidding with that parental advisory, there's nudity, blood and guts, and a coup de grace that will have even the less squeamish folks in the audience wondering if Williams really had to go that far. The battle also exists very much as a technical exercise rather than a story; it's maybe not fair to expect something named "Prologue" to give the audience more than that, but it does not exactly whet the appetite for a larger story.

The first of the "Highly Commended" shorts is "If I Was God", a fairly entertaining flashback from animator Cordell Barker about his time in middle school, particularly a science class where his head was in the clouds about Lily while bratty Augie provided other distractions. It's a cute little story, something done by a lot of animators, but with more chaos than wistful sentimentality.

What makes it stand out is the impressive array of styles Barker uses. As much as the classroom scenes have a whimsical look to them, no two flights of fancy look the same. It's a visual feast, to be certain, and one that keeps the short interesting even if the nostalgic subject matter feels very familiar.

"The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse" is a fairly simple one as well, as a mouse evades a fox in a snowy landscape only to have two owls horn in, with the mammals becoming friends. This is not a fable, particularly, so much as a charming little chase that spans land, sea, and air.

It has a very nice design sense, though - furry animals are ambitious protagonists for what is a student film, and their rendering winds up not quite being the hyper-detailed work one would see in many commercial films, but something that gives the cute characters an additional solidity against the snowy backdrop. It's an awfully charming look that accentuates the playful nature of the film.

It says something about "The Loneliest Stoplight", though I'm not sure what, that I immediately recognized it as having something like Bill Plympton's style but didn't necessarily think it was him, specifically. It's odd, because one usually knows a Plympton film on sight, and much of what makes his work familiar - the gridlocked crowds that vibrate with comic tension, the impossible stretching of characters and items, the occasionally dark but mostly silly humor - even with the changes that have come as he embraces digital tools more.

I think it's the use of Patton Oswalt giving voice to the title character, a traffic light on a country road that finds itself mostly idle when a freeway is built nearby, at least until a traffic jam has cars detoured its way. Plympton's cartoons and features often don't give their characters voices at all, much less one that engages the audience so directly. It's actually very charming, but it points away from the visual storytelling that has always been Plympton's strong suit. It's still a funny little short, if a little friendlier than the usual Plympton fare.

"Catch It!" is another animal-centered short from France, and while it's a little rougher than "A Fox and a Mouse", it's still quite a bit of fun. It's an unabashed cartoon, with a group of meerkats trying to keep a piece of fruit from a vulture. They've got numbers, but he can fly.

It's nifty and fast-paced, although there's something a bit off about the synchronized crowds of meerkats (although their oddness may be more feature than bug). The fast pace and clever staging counters any technical shortcomings.

(Some theaters appear to be including "Taking Flight", although it was not part of the presentation in Cambridge, MA.)

It's a strong, entertaining slate of nominees, and the other four included in the package are certainly good enough that they are not strictly there to pad out the running time. If nothing else, it's fun to check out if you've got a tight Oscar pool.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3895
originally posted: 02/10/16 07:09:33
last updated: 02/10/16 07:10:21
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