Once again, the good people at Shorts HD have assembled the 15 short movies nominated for Academy Awards in three categories – Animation, Live Action, and Documentary – and once again given us the rare treat of watching shorts in a movie theater and being reminded that there are other ways to tell a cinematic story than as a two-hour Hollywood-style narrative.
Sadly, this year’s crop of animated short films isn’t necessarily all that strong, and it gets a whole lot weaker when you stop and realise that the superlative The Eagleman Stag – which I still maintain is the single best thing I saw in 2011, a year fairly drunk on outstanding movies -was thiiiiis close to making the list of five, and somehow a committee of professional animators couldn’t see fit to pull the trigger. The good news is that the Magic of the Internet has now made that short available to one and all.
But let us not dwell on it, and instead move on to the films that were nominated.
Adam and Dog (Minkyu Lee, USA)
There are two films here that, I would suggest, are the obvious, unambiguous standouts, and the first of those is the perhaps overtly self-conscious calling card for the neophyte Disney-trained Lee (the Disney connection runs deeper: James Baxter is on the animation staff, and Glen Keane is credited as a “consultant”). It’s a mostly anime-influence, completely silent story of the Garden of Eden, told from a rigorously secular perspective: that of the First Dog, who runs around behaving all doggy-like, until he meets Adam, and oh how they romp and play until Eve comes along and ruins things
That’s an awfully grand-scale subject to receive such a tiny little drama, but Lee manages to make it work at least somewhat to his advantage; or, at least, the film’s ending makes good enough use of the Biblical idea of the fall that it makes up for the fact that there’s no real urgent reason why the man that the dog befriends has to be that Adam, and not just some nameless, unspeaking, constantly naked man with the facial hair of an unkempt hipster. Though urgency is in short supply here anyway: it’s a mostly plotless piece, heavier on capturing the essence of spaces through a somewhat overbearing soundscape and unspeakably beautiful watercolor-like backgrounds.
And that, really, is what saves the thing. The script meanders and doesn’t really insist on its own stakes, but Adam and Dog is so clearly an attempt to show off beautiful imagery that it basically doesn’t matter. Between the limpid backgrounds and the scratchy, penciled feeling of the character animation (which is a bit more limited than the lushness of the visuals would otherwise suggest; the dog, however, is a fucking masterpiece), it looks like an art student’s sketchbook moving around and living, and it’s hellaciously gorgeous at any rate. Part of me would be willing to watch just this for hours, part of me thinks that 16 minutes is already far too much of it. But it’s got me desperate to see whatever Lee comes up with next, so that’s a good thing, anyway. 7/10
Fresh Guacamole (PES, USA)
The complaint that this brief stop-motion short is nothing more than a retread of director PES’s (born Adam Pesapane) 2008 Western Spaghetti isn’t entirely fair; I’d be inclined to say that the new film is a good deal more logically consistent, if “logic” is a fair word to use about a movie in which various toys and household items are turned into guacamole – light bulb jalapenos, baseball onions, that sort of thing. At any rate, it feels more like it’s been bound by a sense of rules, and thus is, I think it’s fair to say, the better movie.
Still and all, it’s a two minute gag real – ingeniously made and technically flawless, but a gag reel. And however playful and clever the individual visual links PES makes certainly are, that cleverness is strictly one-note: at considerably less than two-minutes in length, it still feels about twice as long as it “needs” to be, and there’s no sort of punchline to give it any sort of shape beyond “visual pun, visual pun, visual pun, stop”. It feels not unlike a Sesame Street animated segment, or a fun TV commercial for a product you can’t remember ten seconds after it’s over: delightful as part of a flow, but much to frivolous and frankly, not that distinctive, to stand up on its own. 6/10
Head Over Heels (Timothy Reckart, UK)
On the other hand, for a truly indistinct stop-motion animated short, we need look no further than this proudly crude claymation domestic drama about a husband and wife whose decades of married life have slowly drifted into a lack of communication and relatability helpfully given metaphoric life by a gimmick wherein they have developed polar opposite gravitational pulls, each living on the “ceiling” of the other one’s space.
This much credit is absolutely due: the design of the thing is altogether magical, with charmingly rough jerry-rigged contraptions for sharing a kitchen space, and a pully attached to a recliner that looks like something out of Jeunet. And though the central metaphor is undeniably forced, it’s certainly not the most unreasonable way to explore through pantomime the strain of old married life.
Reckart certainly doesn’t do himself any favors, though, by insisting on using such pointedly hand-hewn puppets, which are fine on their own, I suppose, but look rather too much like dozens of stop-motion dolls from dozens of equally rough and tumble stop-motion projects that have come out since time immemorial, and while they boast some wonderfully well-sculpted faces, it’s next to impossible to shake the feeling that one has seen this, not just once but many times.
And while there are a lot of places the concept could have gone, the one where Reckart takes it – including, among other details, the fact that the house is spinning through a featureless void – have the tendency to draw focus away from the central marriage and focus it more on the world in which the film takes place, and that surely can’t be right. 6/10
Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare (David Silverman, USA)
Opening in front of Ice Age: Continental Drift, this fits into the awkward new trend of bringing back the old pre-show shorts in the spirit less of artistry or storytelling, more of corporate synergy (see also: Pixar’s attempts to keep flogging the Toy Story ensemble, and Warner’s ghastly CGI updates of the Looney Tunes stable), and it’s not the most obnoxious variation on the theme yet, though what artistic point it fulfills beyond “we can do The Simpsons in 3-D now” is not clear to me. And boy oh boy, do the 3-D effects ever go out of their way to announce themselves; and boy oh boy, are they ever a liability in 2-D.
The film itself is just a noodle, some background gags (of which only the Raggedy Ayn Rand dolls really hit me for any more than a thin smile, and that’s mostly because fuck Ayn Rand) strung along a barely-developed plot in which mute baby Maggie Simpson tries to rescue butterflies from a savage little boy at daycare. As an exercise in branding, it suffers from having not nearly enough Simpsons in it, employing neither the absurdity nor wordplay of the show; as mere comedy, it’s too insubstantial and frequently too obvious (there’s a Pagliacci joke that’s so old it’s whiskers have whiskers) to be more than frivolously cute, and while there are a few okay sight gags along the spine of its screwball chase, primarily, it merely serves to prove that we have fallen a long, long way from the days of Tex Avery. 5/10
Paperman (John Kahrs, USA)
What I said at the time: “I’m legitimately as excited about Paperman as any other animated work I’ve seen in 2012. But if this was meant to be a tech demo, well, it shows. The idea for the story has apparently been kicking around in Kahrs’s head, which is honestly quite strange given how little there actually is to it: boy and girl meet on an elevated train platform, the wind blows a sheet of paper from his arms into her face, leaving a lipstick mark – the only color in this otherwise coolly black-and-white film is the vigorous scarlet of her lips – but before he has a chance to react, she’s gone on another train; when he spots her in the building across the street from his office, he goes through a huge stack of forms trying to get her attention with a paper airplane, but it doesn’t work, and it falls to a huge and sort of silly piece of magical realism to get them together. Obviously, in seven minutes, we’re not looking for a work of the psychological complexity of The Brothers Karamazov, but ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, magical wind helps the boy get girl back’ is hardly a story begging to be told, even if its mustiness matches the undefined mid-century setting of the piece, and its hugely enthusiastic embrace of old-fashioned style. It’s sweet, and the utter sincerity with which Kahrs tells the story helps, but it’s still awfully simplistic and almost pointedly light on character depth.”
That still holds, but a second viewing, when one is not quite so worried about the particular silliness of the narrative, makes it a whole hell of a lot less offensive, though the reflexively masculine prism of it is still disappointing. More importantly, when you’re really truly not paying any attention to what’s going on at all, it looks even more gorgeous, with the almost charcoal-like textures of the black of the protagonist’s hair feathering out, with the sense of physical depth that the new toy Meander (short recap: painting 2-D animation on a 3-D frame) opens up to the animators, with the absolutely goddamn breathtaking lighting effects that can be done now. It comes down to this: do you want your cartoons to be about style, or content? Long-time readers know which side of that debate I fall on. 8/10
The Shorts HD program includes three “commended” shorts, in order to make this something worth paying a feature admission price to see; I will turn them briefly. Very briefly, since I wasted more time re-watching The Eagleman Stag than writing, and I want to move on with my life.
Abiogenesis (Richard Mans, New Zealand)
The grey/brown/green aesthetic is certainly a bold one, and the design is awfully striking; its CGI has a shiny, metallic quality that suits the plot (alien probe seeds life on a desert planet) awfully well. But it’s all so snazzy and industrial that it feels less like a movie, and more like a really catchy opening cinematic from a simulated-evolution video game. 6/10
Dripped (Leo Verrier, France)
Rescued from the ten-film longlist that ended up in the five actual nominees, this is certainly better than at least three of them. The idea is bizarre: a man breaks into art museums to steal the paintings, whereby he physically transforms into a representation of the style of that painting. This isn’t carried out as systematically, or consistently, or with as much creative impact, as it should have been if this wanted to be a genuinely solid work of animation and not just a curiosity, but even the default style is bright and strange enough that the film stands out. The copy I saw was horribly plagued by digital pixillation; I take this to be a distribution issue and not inherent to the movie, but it was still a damn shame. 7/10
The Gruffalo’s Child (Johannes Weiland & Uwe Heidschötter, UK/Germany)
At 27 minutes, this sequel to former nominee The Gruffalo is almost one-third of the entire program of shorts; and they are not minutes that skitter by quickly. The animation is improved over that film – instead of looking like fake stop-motion, it looks like vinyl toys wandering around a woodland with absolutely stunning snow – but everything else is much, much worse: the baked-in repetition to the plot stalks by at abarely any pace whatsoever, playing out the same exact plot points over and over again at the kind of great length that makes you want to start screaming “GET ON WITH IT” at the screen, and unlike the first movie, there are absolutely no stakes. The stories these films are based on, apparently, do big business in Europe; I can only pray that they are more flexible and fable-like, and not merely as grueling, as their cinematic counterparts. 5/10 (and one point of that is entirely for the snow)