Once again, the Academy Awards have at least had the good effect of making some short-form animation available on the big screen, and even though I have adopted the official position that I eschew all Oscar talk here on this blog, I figured that reviewing shorts didn’t count.
French Roast (Fabrice Joubert, France)
If you dropped me in front of it, I’d have sworn that this was a student film: the whole thing has the overdetermined feel of a thesis project where an overly ambitious filmmaker wants to show of the full gamut of his skills. But it would appear that Joubert has been animating professionally for over ten years, so I guess I have to scotch that theory.
The film depicts a prim businessman realising that he doesn’t have his wallet and can’t pay for coffee one afternoon, causing him to stall for time by ordering cup after cup until a solution presents itself. Thinly amusing, with an even thinner overlay of class commentary, the story’s really neither here nor there, but you can arguably get away with that in eight minutes. Visually, though, now that’s a bit thorny. The design is pretty fantastic, all in all, but the animation itself is a bit stiff, and a bit overacted: it feels like a cheesy silent melodrama enacted by people with unnatural plastic skin. As for the effects and camerawork, that’s where I really got that “student project” vibe, especially because of the prominence of a mirror on the back wall of the café – the film uses only one angle, directly parallel to that mirror – which proves that Joubert had a lot of thoughts about layers and depth and and different planes of storytelling, but doesn’t necessarily prove that his thoughts were particularly clear or developed. It’s amusing enough, but there’s not much gas in it, and the look of it slips from memory too easily.
Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty (Nicky Phelan, Ireland)
The first film in a hoped-for series of shorts about a borderline-insane old lady and the demented bedtime stories she tells her grandchildren. In this case, it’s a variant on the Sleeping Beauty myth in which the wicked fairy who curses the princess is treated like a second-class citizen on account of being too old and feeble, so she exacts screaming revenge on all the thing, pretty, young fairies who are more popular.
The emerging consensus seems to be that this is the weakest of the five nominated films, which is hard to argue against – taste, always taste – but I really don’t see it at all. For one thing, even if there is really just the one joke (grandmother shrieking invectives at the young, and scaring the piss out of her granddaughter in the process), it made me laugh, something that two of the other films (all five are comedies) absolutely failed to do. It’s also the only one of the bunch that really attempts to play with the medium at all, combining admittedly routine CG animation with quite striking primary color 2-D animation (which is also computer-generated, but that’s where using labels gets you). I’d be a lot happier with it if I thought that the CG half was better done, for it has the definite tang of being rushed a bit: there’s an inconsistent amount of detail to the characters, and there were moments when it seemed like theoretically adjoining surfaces were floating atop one another. But it amused me, and coming third in a generally middling slate, I badly needed amusement.
The Lady and the Reaper (Javier Recio García, Spain)
Cartoon-physics chase scenes in the Tex Avery style are like sex and pizza: even when they’re bad, they’re still pretty good. And this is very much the saving grace of The Lady and the Reaper, a weird story about an old lady who dies and meets the Grim Reaper, who promises that she’ll be reunited with her husband – but then she gets revived in the hospital. The Reaper wants her soul, the doctor wants to keep her alive, and she (though she has little say in the matter) just wants to die already.
The character design is quite delightful, especially the Reaper; the gag at the end of the plot is pretty funny (and there are some bonus jokes during the credits that are even funnier), so what’s the problem? There’s one thing that I really can’t stand in animation (nor in live action, but it’s more important in animation), and that’s when a movie doesn’t play by its own rules. In a nutshell, we have two spheres: the spirit world, and the hospital room, and the humor of the first two minutes consists of the contrast between them. Then, in a heartbeat, the Reaper pulls the doctor and his nurses into… Hell? No, that’s not it. But some terrain that obeys no law of physics and is very red, and in this place occurs the very high-energy chase that involves the old woman’s soul getting tossed around like a football. It’s very Avery, though of course nowhere near to his level of achievement; but it’s so damn arbitrary, and that is absolute death for this kind of non-real action. The Looney Tunes had a very clear and very consistent set of rules, they just weren’t our rules; that is what kept that series from spinning into the grotesque. For all that it’s fun, The Lady and the Reaper is a bit grotesque.
Logorama (H5 Group, France)
The first time I saw this one, at the Chicago International Film Festival last October, I was hugely excited for it and then found myself absolutely crushed by the result. A second viewing has not materially changed my perspective, unless it be that that the film didn’t seem so godawful long this time.
It has an absolutely irresistible hook: it’s set in a version of Los Angeles where everything – everything – is a corporate logo given three-dimensional form. Over 2500 logos appear, from Ronald McDonald as a criminal to the Lacoste crocodile in a zoo to the pistol that forms the 7 in the classic James Bond title as, well, a pistol. Just by existing, the film is a victory for fair use and parody rights, even irrespective of any pointed satire in the narrative.
Which is good, because there’s not pointed satire in the narrative – in fact, I think that once you came up with that wonderful, amazing concept for a universe, you could not possibly come up with a worse story than this. It’s basically a shoot-out that turns into a car chase that turns into a disaster movie, written with the excited vulgarity of a 14-year-old who still gets a visceral thrill of saying “fuck” and talking about sex (and making dumbfoundingly inappropriate gay jokes, but that’s just one bad moment in a field of them). It looks pretty decent, thought not tremendously inventive (it has a definite Flash feel), but the go-nowhere story and the tedious juvenile humor altogether ruin what should have been the best of these films in a walk.
A Matter of Loaf and Death (Nick Park, UK)
No words to quicker stir the soul of we who love clay stop-motion animation: “The new Wallace & Gromit short”. And damned if that’s not just what we get here. In fact, that’s a bit too much what we get here. For the first time in five adventures, something seems awfully stale about this one; frankly it’s not much more than a retread of their last theatrical short, 1995’s A Close Shave. Wallace and Gromit have a baking business that’s prospering as a serial killer is targeting bakers, and Wallace falls in love with a woman who used to be the center of a baking company’s ad campaign, while Gromit warily eyes her poodle.
Formulas become formulaic because they work, and I certainly don’t want to imply that A Matter of Loaf and Death somehow fails to be entertaining. It still has the same warped sense of humor, Gromit is still a golden triumph of animated pantomime, the animation itself still has that proud, hand-made feeling, where you can see the fingerprints in the clay (this is Aardman, after all, the studio that invented a technique for simulating fingerprints on CGI models). If you’ve loved any of their previous films, it’s a dead certainty you’ll thoroughly enjoy this one. But it’s fairly insubstantial, and I hate to say it, but it’s decidedly the weakest of the series, even after the feature-length Curse of the Were-Rabbit proved that 25 minutes is the ideal. It’s a hit, but it’s no home run.
What of the Oscar, then? Ever since 2005, there’s been a nifty pattern wherein my least favorite of the nominees ended up winning, so part of me wants to say Logorama and be done with it. But there’s just one thing: the crushing tide of history. Nick Park has been nominated for directing all four previous Wallace & Gromit films, and he won three times. The time he lost, it was when A Grand Day Out came up short against Creature Comforts – which was also directed by Nick Park. Put it another way: he has a perfect record in four trips to the Academy Awards. Only a fool would unthinkingly bet against that kind of precedent. Still, pretty much everyone agrees that Logorama is the likeliest runner-up, and some pundits are even suggesting it might win; and so I’ll go ahead and say that eventually, Park has to lose. Why not this year? No guts, no glory, they tell me.
Will Win: Logorama
Dark Horse: A Matter of Loaf and Death
Should Win: A Matter of Loaf and Death
The theatrical slate of shorts has three bonus films, “highly commended” (i.e. the first three runners-up) works to fill out the program to feature length. Which means that I have three bonus reviews!
Partly Cloudy (Peter Sohn, USA)
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that if you care enough about animation that you’ve read this far, you’ve already seen this one: it played theatrically before Up.
It’s no secret that Pixar’s short films are sliding in quality a bit: their last rock-solid masterpiece was For the Birds way the hell back in 2001, and only last year’s Presto has come especially close to that mark. Let us not even speak of their dire made-for-DVD shorts, spin-offs of the features that are generally unwatchable, except for the stunningly inventive Your Friend the Rat (no points for guessing which feature it accompanies).
My point being: if Partly Cloudy doesn’t do much to reverse that slide, neither does it continue. It’s just sort of a holding pattern movie, very sweet and cute with a charming little message about friendship, and really handsome animation. But I’ve seen it five times now and it just doesn’t hold up as well as their best work without drifting into Banalville, and while that’s maybe my fault and not the film’s, I would still say that its greatest value remains that it actually proves, more than Up did, that Pixar can do really cunning things with 3-D.
Runaway (Cordell Barker, Canada)
Another one I saw at the Chicago Film Fest, and I really loved it there. Seeing it again, I can’t really figure out why. Oh, it’s still fun, no doubt, but “love”? No, I can’t do it, not even with the kicky music by Benoît Charest, who scored The Triplets of Belleville, not even coming from the mind that gave us the brilliant 1988 short The Cat Came Back. It’s very slight, and it’s almost not even a one-joke short; it’s closer to a half-joke short, in places. A train is speeding because the conductor is putting the moves on pretty lady passenger, it hits a cow, the desperate coal man tries to save the day, and a weird little bit of class warfare ensues.
Well, at least it has a really cool look, probably the most distinctive of any of the eight pieces shown in this collection. I don’t even really know that I can describe it: it’s like a pencil sketch made in pen, and colored in slightly sickly tones. It’s striking and memorable, even if you don’t particularly respond to it positively (I do). The film is offbeat enough to warrant a look, but this represents neither the best of Canadian animation, nor of Barker’s work as a director.
The Kinematograph (Tomek Baginski, Poland)
Maybe I just don’t know what “commendable” means, because I found this staggeringly bad; as I described it to my viewing companion outside the theater, it looks like the cutscenes from a video game about the steampunk adventures of the Lumière brothers. It’s hard to say whether the design or the story is more bothersome; the design I think, since the story is mostly just clunky and far less clever than it thinks it is. Somewhere in Europe in the 1890s, an inventor toils on making a motion picture camera, which has already come as far as sound, but he wants to figure out how to add color. Meanwhile, his wife encourages him, while COUGHING IN A WAY THAT DOES NOT AT ALL SUGGEST THAT SHE WILL END UP STONE DEAD RIGHT AT THE MOMENT THAT HE PERFECTS HIS INVENTION.
It took me virtually all of the movie to realise that she was his wife: at first I just assumed she was his daughter, and the markings all over her face that proved to be old age wrinkles were rather proof that she’d been carved out of wood, or was a Na’vi. I’d been leaning towards the latter interpretation, in light of her defiantly inhuman features- oh, for fuck’s sake, it’s a horribly ugly movie and I’m not going to sit here thinking about it any longer than I’ve already done. I made my steampunk joke, I can move on.