Thursday, February 18, 2016

Short Film: Animated

In addition to the excellent slate of documentary shorts shown at the Detroit Film Theater, there was a showing of the animated short films that included two extra shortlisted films likely added to pad the schedule. The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse was adorably animated but ultimately lacking in story while The Loneliest Stoplight, a children's take on fame and employment-based value, ultimately wasn't terribly entertaining. With this competition, it's clear why those two didn't make the cut.

Short Film (Animated):
  • Bear Story
  • Prologue
  • Sanjay's Super Team
  • We Can't Live Without Cosmos
  • World of Tomorrow

Bear Story is a touching story within a story of a bear who is forcibly removed from his family and made to perform in a circus. In his CGI world, the bear retells his story through a mechanical diorama for children passing in the street. It is a classic animal rights story, but the strict anthropomorphization of the characters plays incredibly well in translating the story. The bear is taken from his apartment and he works now as a street entertainer, and while the viewers see him in the circus for much of the film, the audience sees him through the much broader lens of forced labor. Effective, beautiful, and concise, Bear Story is a superb work.

Richard Williams has three Oscars already for his animated work, two for Who Framed Roger Rabbit and one for animating A Christmas Carol, though he might be best known for work on The Pink Panther and The Yellow Submarine. Here, Williams presents us with a darker story that is stunningly animated in pencil while making use of a exquisitely pared back set of sound effects. In a scene from the war between Sparta and Athens, two men from each side fight to the death leaving only a child and a widow in a testament to the horrors of war. The plot itself is simple and ultimately of little consequence to the value of the film. Instead, Prologue lives and dies at the exquisitely skilled hand of Richard Williams.

Sanjay's Super Team is Pixar's seventh short film nominated for an Oscar since it's last win fourteen years ago (2001's For the Birds). This looks like an adorable mix of Powerpuff girls and Static Shock realized in 3D with Nintendo sensibilities. It draws on current trends in India of depicting Hindu gods in comic form as a response to American superhero comics. I remember reading a piece (though I can't find it) that turns this story full-circle in which the writer describes their experience growing up with the Hindu gods as culturally very similar to that of Western youths' relations to their superheroes. Here, Sanjay's adoration with his energetic Western-styled superheroes clashes with his father's quiet reverence of his gods. Over the course of the short, Sanjay reenvisions the gods of old into the modern styling of his own heroes, and it is this synthesis that ultimately is the middle ground he and his father come to. Delivered with typical Pixar smoothness, Sanjay's Super Team might just save the day.

We Can't Live Without Cosmos is a heart-warming story of how two best friends in an astronaut training program manage life together and apart. Suitably animated by two-time nominee Konstantin Bronzit, the real strength here is the narrative, and the comedic punctuation. Funny and charming, Cosmos reaches for the stars.

I was introduced to Don Hertzfeldt my freshman year of college at quite possibly the same time I learned of Avenue Q. He had been nominated for an Academy Award the year prior for 2001's Rejected, and hasn't cracked a list since despite the incredible reviews for It's Such A Beautiful Day. Here, Hertzfeldt presents his first science fiction piece aside from the Simpson's couch gag of his from which he draws some design elements. Here, he explores the moral and technological outcomes of extended lifespans by way of consciousness uploading. With a scene that philosophically calls to mind Tom Scott's Welcome to Life, though which certainly has antecedents elsewhere, Hertzfeldt takes a jab at the classism inherent in society. Too, he looks at the emotional failings of progressive copies of humans, their humanity progressively degenerating along with the exactness of their copy. While he may be able to see into the future, I doubt his vision is accessible enough to grant Hertzfeldt a win here.

The grouping this year is a bit more mature than in years past, but it isn't without its fun. World of Tomorrow might be the most accomplished narrative piece, and Prologue is definitely the greatest animation. I suspect, though, that it will be the accessibility, softness, emotional impact, and political resonance of Bear Story that will win out.

Should win: World of Tomorrow
Will win: Bear Story

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