May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
February 26, 2012
The Academy has done great work over the past few years in expanding the reach of the Oscar-nominated short films; if you live in the right cities, they could be playing in a theater near you, and if not, most of them are available on iTunes and other digital distribution sites. I’ve been watching the Oscar-nominated shorts package (at the Academy’s annual screening) for the past three years, and across the board this is my favorite collection thus far. I don’t have the time or the inclination to write up the live-action nominees, but I’ve devoted a few words to each of the animated nominees below.
In case you’re still filling out your Oscar bets, the short version is: I expect and hope for “La Luna” to win, though I would not be surprised or upset if “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore”took the prize instead.
One of two shorts from the National Film Board of Canada in this batch, Patrick Doyon’s portrait of an average Sunday in small-town Quebec combines telling observations and imaginative tangents into a familiar if occasionally befuddling reflection on childhood.
The melancholy boy at the center of the film is dragged through a gauntlet of Sunday obligations by his parents: a church service in the morning and an afternoon dinner at his grandparents’ house. His world is a forest of legs and a thicket of inscrutable conversations. His only consolation is laying coins along the tracks for the train — a monstrous thing that dwarfs the town itself and rattles the picture frames out of their places — and marveling at the resulting pancake.
The boy’s hometown is undeniably bleak. The factory is closed, the men are lazy, and the food is deeply unpleasant. The animation isn’t picturesque, either: with the muddy colors and that deliberately primitive style that shows up a lot in independent animation — and which, if we’re being honest, I hate — Doyon conjures up a pretty sickly world.
There are a few grace notes: that the boy offers his first flattened coin for the church’s collection basket is actually touching, and he says “amen” at the end of the service with surprising reverence — before his harried parents suddenly jerk him from his seat.
The ending, though unclear, may be the bleakest of all: it suggests to me that the boredom in this town is so stifling it crushes even the boy’s imagination. But maybe not. If the boy can be reckoned to be a young Doyon — the whole short does have an autobiographical feel — I suppose this short is evidence he survived with some imagination in tact.
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
A glowing, winsome 15-minute advertisement for your local library, “Fantastic Flying Books” is one part silent comedy, two parts Wizard of Oz and a whole lot of the visual wonder courtesy of William Joyce, the children’s book author and illustrator who co-directed the short with special effects veteran Brandon Oldenburg.
Joyce, the Norman Rockwell of retro futures, has a style that lends itself well to CG — as seen also in Disney’s Meet the Robinsons — and here the CG blends beautifully with stop-motion sets and painterly 2-D flipbooks. If Joyce and Oldenburg were competing with anyone but Pixar, they’d have hands down the most visually sumptuousshort.
“Fantastic Flying Books”opens with terrible winds whipping through a distinctly Louisiana city — Joyce and Oldenburg’s Moonbot Studios are based in Shreveport — evoking Hurricane Katrina by way of Dorothy’s tornado. But soon the silent protagonist, who’s just a shade this side of Buster Keaton, finds himself transported to a land full of living books. He takes up residence there and becomes a caretaker to the books, performing surgery on their spines, feeding them alphabet soup and loaning them out to the neighbors. He lives out his whole life among these books, and chronicles his own story as he goes.
The emotional core of the short is the way stories — mostly books, but there’s so much cinematic homage it’s hard not to think outside the printed page — offer us solace and structure in the wake of disaster, and telling our own stories offers us a way of persevering even after our own time has passed. The visual metaphors may be a little heavy-handed — Books lend color to your life! Books make you fly! — but the world they create is so verdant and inviting that it’s hard to object.
It’s no great insight to say that Pixar makes beautiful movies — and beautiful shorts — but the more of their films that I watch, the more I think their secret weapon is not their technology, their designers or their animators. It’s their color department. Films like Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and Up abound in candy colors and jewel tones, bright but never garish, expertly balanced in every frame. Compared to the more pedestrian palette of a Shrek film, or even How To Train Your Dragon, which I love, Pixar is not just better; it’s playing a whole different game.
All of this to say that “La Luna,” the short film that will precede Brave but is in the running for this year’s Oscars thanks to a few festival runs, could make Titian pause and take notice. In the short, three generations of moonsweepers — the men who clean stardust from the surface of the moon — encounter an unusual obstacle to their work, and the delicate interplay of the golden moon and the rich purple night, augmented by scanned pastel and watercolor textures, is more enchanting than even the thousand balloons of Up. I don’t know if it deserves the Oscar, but I think it deserves an installation in the Musee D’Orsay.
It’s artful in the usual way of Pixar shorts, as well: dialogue-free, smartly using a few gestures to establish the relationships and dispositions of the three characters. It’s the first outing for the youngest moonsweeper, and in just 7 minutes he firmly establishes his own identity and earns the respect of his elders. The protagonist’ unusual occupation doesn’t really make sense until the final shot, which gives the whole preceding a nice bedtime-story kind of mythology.
At the screening, my friends and I mistakenly thought this was the short that preceded Cars 2, which we did not see, and we nearly resigned ourselves to buying that film just so that we could have this short. I think that’s recommendation enough.
A Morning Stroll
Grant Orchard’s short about a chicken walking down a New York sidewalk in three different time periods is slight but entertaining, with a great punchline. I won’t spoil that punchline, nor will I spoil the third era in which the film takes place, but suffice to say they’re worth more than a few laughs.
Orchard represents each era with a different style of computer animation that best exemplifies the perceived spirit of that era. The 1959 segment is in faded black and white, and each character is made up of defined shapes and clear, geometric lines. In 2009, everything is in bright, saturated colors and videogame textures. The third segment is much more realistic and, in the action film parlance, gritty.
The setup is essentially the same in each era — a man passes a chicken on a sidewalk — but each time he reacts differently. Orchard’s observations about the changing ways people react to the world around them aren’t exactly novel: people used to be more friendly; people these days are media-addicted; nothing’s real unless it’s on your iPhone. They’re smartly depicted, though, and at 7 minutes nothing overstays its welcome.
As far as the token “edgy” short goes, it’s worlds better than last year’s “Let’s Pollute” or 2010’s inexplicably Oscar-winning “Logorama.”
Twelve years after “When the Day Breaks,” which I’ve written about before, Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby bring their melancholy interest in connection and isolation to this “western” about an English gentleman who buys a ranch in the wilds of Canada, circa the early 1900s. The film isn’t as sublime as their previous effort, but it’s more energetic, and turns gradually from fish-out-of-water humor to existential despair.
Forbis and Tilby intercut the rancher’s letters home with bystander interviews, documentary footage and image slideshows. The result is part visual diary, part Discovery Channel nature special, even part science textbook: occasional title cards dispense factoids about comets with obvious metaphorical and eventual literal significance. That it incorporates all of these disparate tones and techniques while still feeling leisurely and cohesive is impressive.
The film’s animation — each frame painted in gouache — is perfectly pitched for the short’s wide emotional range, starting off bright and stylized and ending in elegant naturalism. There are a few shots — a lighting storm; a bird wandering through the snow; a bullet descending through the air — that are as breathtaking as anything Russia’s master painter-animator Alexander Petrov has done, and you can see why it took 12 years to complete.
Whatever its flaws — personally I’m not sure it earns its dark ending — “Wild Life” is a prime example of the National Film Board of Canada’s commitment to the individual voices of their artists: Watching it I have a sense of glimpsing someone’s interior life, not only the protagonist but Forbis and Tilby themselves, with their sideways way of viewing the world and their love for the strange and lonely. It’s hard to imagine this short made by anyone else.