Thursday, February 4, 2016

Oscar Predictions: Best Animated Short Film

Pixar's Sanjay’s Super Team is one of five films nominated for Best Animated Short Film at this year's Oscars.

Oscar season has begun! While we’re all discussing our picks for this year’s Best Picture and whether or not Leo is finally going to get his Oscar for The Revenant, seeing the nominated short films can sometimes feel like trying to collect all the toys in a series of feature film Happy Meals. Fortunately, ShortsHD has us covered with theatrical releases of this year’s live action and animated shorts in select theatres as well as pay-per-view online streaming. This week, I had the opportunity to catch the Academy’s nominees for Best Animated Short Film at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. Here’s my ranking of the five films in this category, from weakest to Oscar-winning:

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, directed by Konstantin Bronzit, tells the story of two friends with dreams of space.

#5: We Can’t Live Without Cosmos – Russian contribution, We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, is directed by Konstantin Bronzit and tells the story of two best friends training to fulfill their shared dream of becoming cosmonauts. Halfway through the film, it’s revealed that one of the men, who have been inseparable since childhood, is going into space while the other is his “reserve” astronaut, cheering him on from the sidelines on terra firma. The friendship between the two men and the ensuing grief that arises when one of them is no longer present is the film’s primary focus but it shares with fellow nominee, The World of Tomorrow, a secondary suggestion that scientific progress comes at the expense of human connection. It’s a touching story and, most notably, I found it particularly refreshing to see a depiction of close friendship between two men that was warm, affectionate, and genuine more Gene and Phineas from A Separate Piece and less of the overdone, hyper-masculine, borderline homophobic bromance favoured by contemporary North American filmmakers. Technically speaking, however, the animation was a little dated and simplistic compared to its competitors, making it, in my opinion, the weakest of the five nominees.

Richard William's Prologue is composed of over 6,000 hand-illustrated drawings.

#4: Prologue – This hand-illustrated, highly detailed piece from Oscar-winner Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) was, at one point, my first choice for Best Animated Short Film. In the theatre, it’s dazzling. This brief vignette of a battle between four Spartan and Athenian warriors 2,400 years ago is composed of over 6,000 realistic drawings created by hand, on paper, and sparsely punctuated with sounds from nature. The interplay between animation and sound is stunning in surround sound; details like the rustling of leaves, footsteps in the dirt, or the flapping of a butterfly’s wings create an intense immersion in the moment depicted, mimicking the hyper-awareness of the warriors poised for combat. Contributing to the overall sense of realism, Prologue includes nudity and violence but approaches both in a way that strikes as authentic and honest instead of glorified. That said, Prologue’s impressiveness seems to be inseparably connected to the quality in which it’s being presented. On a smaller screen with unremarkable speakers, the film is forced to rely on its story: a little girl witnessing a bloody battle and turning to her grandmother for comfort. I might eat my words, but, to me, the cut-and-dried plot doesn’t seem like enough to bring home an Oscar for this collaborative effort from Canada and the United Kingdom.

A still from Chilean director Gabriel Osorio’s Bear Story.

#3: Bear Story – Seated squarely in the middle of the road for me is Chilean animated short, Bear Story, a beautifully made tale of a toy-making bear who showcases an intricate clockwork diorama he’s created on the street corner for the entertainment of passers-by. Within the box, tiny gear-operated bears act out a drama for paying customers, telling a dark story of the Papa bear’s abduction by the circus, his daring escape, and the subsequent loss of his wife and child. The story is a little meta: implied by the empty beds and photos shown in the toy-maker’s house, the bears in the diorama appear to be playing out a story that happened to the father bear, and the father bear, by extension, is a stand in for director Gabriel Osorio’s real-life grandfather who underwent a similar experience during Chile’s Pinochet regime in the 1970s. By and large, Bear Story had the most beautiful animation of all its competitors. The diorama is detailed with more gears than you can shake a stick at, all turning and moving in stunning detail. That said, while the meaning behind the story is readily obvious in Osorio’s native Chile, it leaves a few unanswered questions lingering in the air for a broader audience. Visually impressive, endearing, and quietly sad, Bear Story is a finely crafted work of art, but I’m not sure it’s enough to take home the Oscar.

Bizarre and darkly funny: Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow

#2: World of Tomorrow – Sometimes in criticism you reach a point where logic and personal opinion diverge. For me, this is one of those places. I’m not convinced Don Hertzfeldt’s 17-minute sci-fi creation, World of Tomorrow, will win the Oscar for its category but I so desperately want it to. Stranger things have happened: perhaps his most famous piece, Rejected, took home an Oscar in the same category in 2000. That film in particular holds a special place in my heart. Growing up at a suburban arts high school, my artsy misfit pals and I loved Rejected and quoted it regularly for a four-year stretch. Hertzfeldt’s work was something different for us and we latched onto it. Today, many accredit Hertzfeldt as the guy who “started” surrealism and absurdism in animation, shaping the development of today’s entire adult cartoon landscape.

Back to the film in question, though, World of Tomorrow marks the beginning of Hertzfeldt’s foray into digital animation and was developed at the same time as his much discussed, totally face-melting 2014 Simpson’s couch gag (from “Clown in the Dumps”). His customary stick figures have been sharpened and cleaned up, superimposed on a series of digitally rendered backdrops. Highlighting this monumental shift in his work, characters Emily Clone and Emily Prime often interact with the abstract shapes and colours that float around them, representing the equally abstract concepts of space and time. The story plays with time travel and cloning as a little girl receives a phone call from her descendant clone in the distant future who is looking to retrieve a lost memory from her “original.” Like all of Hertzfeldt’s work, it’s bizarre and darkly funny; things like Emily Clone waxing poetic about falling in love with a fuel pump and receiving depressed poetry from robots on the moon are presented without apologies or explanation, conjuring images of a future that is at once strange and fascinating. Adorably, at the heart of all this weirdness is Hertzfeldt’s niece, Winona Mae, who voices toddler Emily Prime. Hertzfeldt recorded her speaking as she played and retroscripted around whatever she came up with, causing us to wonder exactly which parts were dreamed up by a child and which were invented by an adult man with a peculiar sense of humour. It’s this sense of humour that leaves me reluctant to peg World of Tomorrow as my choice for Best Animated Short Film; I love it but I’m not convinced it’s to everyone’s taste.

Pixar's Sanjay’s Super Team will likely take home the Oscar this year.

#1: Sanjay’s Super Team – Pixar’s contribution to the list (notably, Pixar shorts always seem to have a spot reserved for them on this list; since 1987, they’ve received 12 nominations and 3 wins), is an autobiographical piece from director Sanjay Patel’s childhood memories. An Indian boy growing up in the United States is watching a super hero cartoon show with rapt attention only to be interrupted by a bell from his father’s morning prayers on the other side of the room. The two compete with each other for dominance before Sanjay ultimately gives into his father’s wishes and joins him in prayer. Young Sanjay visualizes the Hindu gods as the superheroes from earlier, engaging in a duel with antagonist Ravana, ultimately finding harmony between his cultural roots and his Western surroundings. Father and son reach a compromise that both appear to be satisfied with.

While the animation is just as smooth and beautiful as we’ve come to expect from Pixar, I think one of the strongest features of this short film is that it seems to be the only one that tells a complete story with a conventional resolution. Often it seems short films eschew standard storytelling structures in order to create “high art” works that are more exploratory and ambiguous but Sanjay’s Super Team is well suited to the medium; its story is complete without reaching too far. Although the aesthetic and subject matter, in my opinion, lacked the maturity seen in some of the other Best Animated Short nominees, it’s also worth noting that this is the first time a Pixar work has included a person of colour as a main character. Not to say that Sanjay’s Super Team isn’t deserving of the award in its own right (although it wasn’t my personal favourite, it’s nonetheless beautiful and touching), but with all the #OscarsSoWhite controversy swirling around the 88th Academy Awards, one has to wonder if this milestone first for Pixar will be a point in the film’s favour.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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