Movies, Reviews

Oscar Shorts 2014: Animated

Last week I told you what I thought of the live action Oscar nominated shorts for the upcoming Oscars, which means this week we get to talk about the much more light-hearted animated shorts. I don’t know what it is about animation that makes people opt for happier stories, but pretty much every year the live-action films are all serious and dramatic while the animated ones border on the absurd. This year was no exception.

1. Feral (USA)

From the title alone, you can probably guess what this film is about. Feral follows the story of a boy raised in the woods, though it is unclear whether he was actually raised by wolves or just liked to follow them around. He is captured by a hunter who brings him back to society and sends him to school, where he gets bullied on the playground and ends up locked in a stable. I’d tell you how it ends, but it doesn’t end so much as dissolve into abstraction.

Of the animation styles on display here, Feral is one of the best–it’s like watching charcoal drawings come to life, and the simplicity of the renderings makes you see the strangeness of the people the way the feral boy sees them. That was a really excellent device, I thought, but the rest of this film is decidedly lacking. For one thing, the boy’s relationship to the hunter is at odds with the plot; we are meant to believe that the boy trusts the hunter over other humans, as symbolized by a hat, when in fact the first thing the hunter does on screen is shoot a wolf. Seems weird to then portray the hunter as the feral boy’s main ally. Maybe that’s just me. Anyway, this is a beautiful bit of animating, stretched over a shaky premise. You will notice that this is a recurring theme.

2. Get A Horse! (USA)

An old-timey Mickey Mouse cartoon goes awry when Peg-Leg Pete kidnaps Minnie (heavily implying that he is going to sexually assault her, because you know, kids cartoon), and then the characters accidentally fall out of the movie, and must battle one another across both 2D and 3D worlds.

…this movie. I just. Sigh.

Credit where credit is due: the animating challenges of this thing are astronomical, and the Disney animation team did a great job handling the 2D/3D transitions. That said, oh my god this film is so stupid. It’s basically just 7 minutes of Minnie shrieking while Mickey continually breaks physics in uncreative and nonsense ways. There’s no story, the internal physics of the world are inconsistent (yes, I will criticize a cartoon for not maintaining consistent physics–you can make shit up, but then you have to stick to it), and literally every character is deeply irritating. My main takeaway from this film was that I’m glad I live in the post-black-and-white-slapstick-shorts era of Disney, because that shit is just annoying.

3. Mr. Hublot (France)

Oh no, you guys, robot dogs are adorableMr. Hublot is the story of an OCD shut-in living in a clockwork world, whose life is turned upside down when he befriends a tiny robot dog that soon becomes a not-so-tiny robot dog. The imposition of chaos in Mr. Hublot’s life causes a lot of problems for him, resulting in an internal struggle that plays out neatly on screen.

This movie is absurdly saccharine, and I loved every second of it. Mr. Hublot has this expressive physicality to him that reminded me a lot of Gromit from Wallace & Gromit, only about a million times cuter. There’s no dialogue in the film, so the careful attention to body language and facial expression has a lot of room to breathe. And the animation itself is beautiful; it’s not anything new or innovative, but it suits the world building and demonstrates an attention to detail that’s astounding. It’s not a movie that’s going to make you think, but you won’t regret time spent watching it, if only because it’s so cute oh no.

4. Possessions (Japan)

This was, hands down, my favorite of the actual nominees, and the one that I think most deserves the Oscar. Possessions follows a wandering man as he takes shelter in an abandoned shrine during a storm, only to discover that the shrine is full of enchanted, discarded objects bent on avenging themselves. He passes the evening locked in combat with these objects, which he must defeat not by destroying them, but by fixing them and showing them appreciation. He does so in typically dramatic anime fashion.

If you’ve ever seen an anime, then you know exactly what to expect from this film. It’s a flawless example of the genre: overly exaggerated facial expressions, lots of bright colors, characters that somehow manage to be both adorable and creepy, and a weirdly charming plot trajectory that has you smiling even as you’re scratching your head. Like most anime, Possessions is quite visually stunning, though not on level with the brilliance of, say, a Miyazaki film (but let’s be honest–nobody else is on his level), and it moves along at a brisk pace that never lets you get bored. It’s a small film with a small story, but it knows what it wants to say and says it simply, which is refreshing come Oscar-season. A++

5. Room on the Broom (UK)

…of course, there is such a thing as too much simplicity, and Room on the Broom is a perfect example. It tells the story of a witch who spends a lot of time giggling and accidentally dropping things from her broom so that she can go down and hunt for them, and accidentally acquire new friends. The story is super repetitive, with story elements mirroring one another right down to the dialogue, and it ends with the witch getting completely sidelined so that her animal friends have to save her from a dragon. The voice acting cast is star-studded, including Gillian Anderson, Simon Pegg, and Timothy Spall, among others, but it is not enough to save this disaster of a film.

If you saw the films from the previous two years (or read my reviews of them), then you already saw two films from the same company with The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child, which are stylistically identical to this one (there’s even a throwback reference to those films). I don’t know who it is that keeps nominating these people for Oscars, or how they’re getting so many famous people to agree to voice such stupid stories, but whoever it is needs to cut it out. Room on the Broom is a 25 minute film that ought to have been cut down to 5 minutes, maybe. It’s repetitive, the animation style is uninspired, and the fact that all the witch does is giggle is a criminal misuse of Gillian Anderson’s talents. Utter failure on this one.

Highly Commendeds:

Because the animated films are so short, the Oscars package also includes “highly commendeds,” so I’m going to review those as well. Because they’re actually better. Well. Some of them are. Some of them are…um….

6. A La Francaise (France)

In the Animated short films of 2014 contest, this one is the hands-down winner of the “what the ever-loving fuck just happened” award. It is possible that everybody involved in this project was high? I am not sure how you propose making a film like this without getting immediately laughed out of the room. But let’s back up for a second.

A La Francaise is a slice-of-life film that shows off the fabulous homes, gardens, clothes, & lifestyles of Renaissance-era French chickens. I think. The picture above is honestly a better summary than anything I could write–it’s just chickens behaving like Renaissance aristocracy, dancing ballroom and playing croquet and fencing and very occasionally behaving like actual chickens. That’s it. That’s the whole concept.

Absurd and confusing premise aside, this is a surprisingly entertaining film, by which I mean it never lets you get bored. Each new scene brings with it fresh questions and more startling confusion, until you stop trying to make sense of it and just hang on for the ride. There’s some merit in that, I think; if films are meant to be entertainment first, this one certainly does its job. Add to that the incredible attention to detail in the animation style and I can see why it got an honorable mention, even if I’m still confused as to why anyone would make it in the first place.

7. The Missing Scarf (Ireland)

Narrated by George Takei, this is easily the best film in the bunch, including all of the actual nominees, but I can understand why it didn’t make it past “honorable mention”: this movie is terrifyingThe Missing Scarf starts off as a typical children’s story, following a squirrel as he asks his woodland critter friends if they’ve seen his scarf (a la John Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back). Each critter he encounters presents him with a philosophical problem, which the squirrel solves–and that’s when things start to get weird. Like, really weird. Like, existential-crisis-turned-Lovecraftian-horror weird. This film has a very high body count.

Given my love of Hannibal and Welcome to Night Vale, it shouldn’t surprise you that I loved the hell out of this film. It spoke to me on a spiritual level. I’m pretty sure I spent the whole time making this face:

The Missing Scarf is what you might expect out of a children’s book written for the children of Night Vale, and that’s what makes it so good. The disconnect between the childish, simplistic storytelling (exemplified in the blocky, impressionist animation style) and the deeply disturbing philosophical implications of the dialogue throws you so far off that there is literally no other response than to laugh. Everything about it is amazing, and I would watch it on repeat for hours. That said, this is a niche film, and I am very much the audience it is catering to. I can see how more mainstream or highbrow cinematic taste would want nothing to do with The Missing Scarf, and I can hardly blame the Academy for that bit of practicality.

8. The Blue Umbrella (USA)

Finally, waaaaay down at the end of the Highly Commendeds, we get to the animation juggernaut that is Pixar. In true Pixar style, The Blue Umbrella is a stupidly cute story about a blue umbrella that falls in love with an attractive red umbrella, and then must find her again with some help from various anthropomorphized object friends on the city streets, like mailboxes and manhole covers and drainage pipes.

Honestly, I cannot figure out why this film didn’t get a nomination. It’s not my personal favorite, but the jaw-dropping realism of the animation deserves an Oscar all by itself. I was legitimately confused at the opening of this film, because I thought the cityscape was live footage. That’s how amazing the computer animation on this thing is. Plus, the story is practically marinading in its own adorableness, which usually draws all kinds of attention when Pixar’s at the wheel. Though it’s also strongly reminiscent of Pixar’s Paperman story from last year, so maybe the Academy felt it was a rehash? I don’t know, but The Blue Umbrella definitely deserved a spot on the nominee list. They should have trashed Room on the Broom instead.

Yours in high-definition,
M.M. Jordahl

“No amount of great animation will save a bad story.” -John Lasseter

P.S. On a related topic, here’s an animated movie I found online called Unimagined Friends that’s basically excellent.

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