Upon learning that there was going to be a blog-a-thon about animated short films at Pussy Goes Grrr, I knew pretty much immediately what I wanted to do for my entry, and with apologies to not one but two commenters who hoped to see Yuriy Norshteyn put in appearance, there was simply no space for him given my unifying theme. But I will happily give a shout-out to Norshteyn’s 1975 Hedgehog in the Fog, which is one of the absolute best animated things I’ve ever seen, and if you get a chance to check it out, please do. It’s awfully easy to find on YouTube.
But still, it’s not where I wanted to take this essay. Instead, I wanted to indulge in one of my all-time cinematic obsessions, and write a post in tribute to the animation of Canada, where some of the most consistently entertaining and visually innovative non-experimental cartoons in the whole world have been made for decades now, mostly courtesy of the great NFB. Here follows a brief celebration of some of the best and brightest Canadian animated shorts of all time. It’s more of a Greatest Hits compilation than an attempt to dig out anything rare or obscure (if you’re a fan of the form, you’ve very probably seen all of these before), and I had to cheat a hair – at 61:11, it’s just a snip over the official blog-a-thon rule that the slate has to come in under an hour, but just skip the credits for the fourth movie and you’ll be more or less there. Anyway, I didn’t have to include a 30-minute film, but I would have hated myself if I didn’t.
On to the films!
C’est l’aviron (McLaren, 1944)
There would be no point to a Canadian slate at all that didn’t include Scottish-born Norman McLaren, one of the great abstract filmmakers to ever ply his trade. Part of me wanted to go with his legendary Begone Dull Care, but instead I’ve gone with what might be the most utterly Canadian of his prominent works: an illustration of a traditional French-Canadian folk song, accompanied by still images of the situations referenced in the lyrics (which you can find in English here). It’s spare to the point of hardly counting as “animation” at all, but every time I see it again (which is, I think, six or seven times now), I always get completely hooked by it; the little bit of movement that we do see is constant and rhythmic and combined with the hugely repetitive song, it all ends up being a bit hypnotic.
The Sweater (Cohen, 1980)
Skipping, out of necessity, over a few decades where outside of McLaren I simply don’t know very much, we land on one of the most famous and beloved of all Canadian cartoons. It is, undoubtedly, a little sticky in its sweetness, but it combines two of the things that are most typical about the country’s output: sarcastic but largely affectionate nostalgia, and imagery that is, if not exactly revolutionary, certainly striking and unconventional; in this case, something that looks powerfully like an animated chalk drawing. And maybe that’s what it is; at any rate, it gives the entire film a cozy feeling that matches the content extremely, well also looking not exactly like anything else you’ve ever seen in the movies. I might as well also confess that for all the story is a bit saccharine, it gets me; there’s a warm personality to it (and especially with the heavily accented narration) that makes it seem like a really sweet anecdote and not like a cloying attempt to prick at your emotions.
L’homme qui plaintait des arbres (Back, 1987)
One of the masterpieces of Canadian cinema, animated or live-action, short or feature-length. An Oscar winner, if that’s something that matters to you, it is guilty of a lot of things that Oscar shorts tend to be: a bit messagey and feel-good, but the calmness of the pacing and the softness of the colors and the drawing (which I take to be pencil sketches; at any rate, the shading and desaturation are typical of color pencil) give it a reflective rather than hectoring quality, and the Christopher Plummer’s measured, relaxed narration in the English language version – I have not ever watched the French – has all the rich texture of a storybook that we expect from Plummer, but the story itself is far more nuanced and thoughtful than any fairy tale. Beautiful in every respect, and essential viewing by any measure.
The Cat Came Back (Barker, 1988)
Dear reader, if I were ever going to introduce a personal canon of movies that have a disproportionate meaning to me relative to their actual merits, this Oscar-nominee (one of the first movies to ever lose to a Pixar film) would be near the very top – I first saw it probably not that long after its premier as a TV interstitial (on Nickelodeon, I’d wager), and was obsessed with it, forever after; it’s fair to say that this and the series The Racoons are between them entirely responsible for training a preteen Tim Brayton to love Canadian animation long before he knew that Canadian animation was even a thing. And in the cold light of day, it’s notable mostly for its influences (there’s a lot of Tex Avery in it, and the style is indebted to The Big Snit, a 1985 NFB short directed by Cat producer Richard Condie, a masterpiece in its own right) than what it influenced, though it beat Squigglevision to the punch by a lot of years. Anyway, I still find it hilarious, energetic, and visually bright in all the right ways; a cartoon sometimes just needs to be a cartoon.
When the Day Breaks (Forbis & Tilby, 1999)
I realized only in the course of writing this piece that 2011 Oscar nominee Wild Life, the only one of that slate that has stuck with me at all, was the first film in 12 years for directors Amanda Forbis & Wendy Tilby, and it suddenly made sense why it seemed so much more accomplished than its competition – it was, after all, the sophomore effort from the people who made this extraordinary, gently melancholic fable about some of the most fascinating anthropomorphic animals ever animated (using an unusually labor-intensive version of rotoscoping). An atmospheric depiction of life’s tiny moments that opens up into real tragedy and hurt, the visuals are a small miracle: first they are strange and a bit alienating and even kitschy, and the more that we sink into the film’s rhythm, the more that the oddly realistic cartoon style turns into just exactly the wrinkle that we need to see these quotidian details as fresh and revelatory.