Thursday, February 4, 2016

88th Academy Awards: The Animated Shorts

Leading up to the 88th Academy Awards on February 28th, I'm going to be writing a few pieces about the films nominated and certain categories. This week, I was able to catch a screening of the animated shorts nominated for 2015, and here's a brief round up of thoughts I had about all five films.

Bear Story (dir. Gabriel Osorio Vargas)
This Chilean film is about a bear who chooses to tell his tragic life story through a mechanical diorama, charging a small fee for anyone who's willing to watch him crank it up and put it on display. Of the five nominees, this is the most sentimental, which is an achievement considering that it's running against a Pixar film. The device of the diorama allows for some very clever use of animation, and allows the heartbreaking story of the titular bear (he's taken from his wife and child and all but imprisoned in a circus which forces him to perform patronizing tricks) to be displayed with flourish. Of course, it does create an unreliable narrator. Bear Story is a sweet, well-meaning film, that allows an audience member to choose a happy ending if they want to, especially since the obvious truth is much less heartening.

Prologue (dir. Richard Williams)
This film compelled my screening to warn the audience of violence and nudity before it began - the tone was set: this movie is not for children. Prologue is easily the least interesting of the five, it's pencil sketch aesthetic is nice in a classical sort of way (and it goes hand in hand with the film's subject matter: an Athenian/Spartan battle), but it only reminded me of the music video for "Take On Me" from the new wave band A-Ha. To be honest, "Take On Me" probably works better as a narrative. The six-minute film shows two duos fighting brutally against one another. What starts softly, with Mallick-ian swooshes throughout a sparse landscape turns quickly into carnage, violence and eventually sorrow. Homages to German artist K├Ąthe Kollwitz (at least two images are taken directly from her artwork) are used to little effect, nor is any attempt to credit Kollwitz made. In the end, Prologue is a rather drab experience, with its sole virtue being that it is mercifully the shortest of the nominated films.

Sanjay's Super Team (dir. Sanjay Patel)
This year's Pixar submission, anyone who went to see The Good Dinosaur (which I did, unfortunately) was able to see it already. The semi-autobiographical film tells the story of a young boy named Sanjay who struggles to share with his father the virtues of their Hindu religion - Sanjay is much more interested in television superheroes. When Sanjay then falls into an elaborate daydream, he begins to comprehend the truly heroic qualities of the Hindu gods and he finally understands the depth of his father's faith. Sanjay's Super Team is significant for being a Disney film that not only includes people of color but actually uses the culture of those people as its main narrative device. As is usually the case, Pixar overloads the film with preciousness, making it almost impossible to come up with an objective opinion. It's too adorable to hate! But Super Team does earn its adorability, and in a film about familial acceptance, its good to see an American film about Eastern culture that doesn't allow itself to become a stereotype.

We Can't Live Without Cosmos (dir. Konstantin Bronzit)
This cosmonaut dramedy comes from Russia, with a simple Dilbert-esque animation style and a very dry sense of humor. Though Cosmos is never explicit on the point, the film is a queer story about two training cosmonauts whose sheer skill on the training grounds is only eclipsed by the fierceness of their relationship. The two men are compelled by a dream to go up into outer space, and that dream never feels further realized than when they are together. Because its Russian, this left-of-center love story must be confronted with tragedy, and that sends the film into a prolonged final act that's nearly half the film. It wouldn't be surprising for two Russian cosmonauts to be in the closet, but does the film have to be in the closet too? Cosmos achieves some real poignancy, and it does have a real accurate view of the dynamics of male relationships, but considering all that Cosmos doesn't tell you, it's hard to merit the film's 16 minute runtime considering that its love story never commits to being an actual love story.

World of Tomorrow (dir. Don Hertzfeldt)
World of Tomorrow is the best film from 2015 that I've seen in 2016. Animator Don Hertzfeldt brings his absurd stick figures into the world of science fiction. A toddler named Emily is approached by herself 227 years in the future. The future Emily begins to tell her younger self of the process of cloning that has prolonged life, and tells of a future which features time travel, space travel and a large shared network called the "outernet" (as opposed to the internet). Emily then tells her younger self her life story, one that includes interplanetary travel, many forms of love and at least one form of heartbreak. World of Tomorrow is a wonderful, beautiful exploration of what it means to be human, told with the usual sardonic, black comedic tone that has gained Hertzfeldt such a strong, devoted following (if you haven't seen his 2000 film Rejected, you really ought to). The film manages to speak on humanity, mortality and love in such simple, piercing ways, and manages to do so effectively in just 17 minutes. The story is whole, the characters full (and did I mention that it totally passes the Bechdel test?), and by its end it has sent its audience through such a torrent of varied emotions that its hard to comprehend just how it was able to pull it off. Short films can be tedious, redundant exercises, but World of Tomorrow is a testament to their power. No excuses people, it's on Netflix!

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