Toon Musings: Oscar’s Animated Shorts
It’s Oscar time again! Time to see what sterling examples of animation the ossified Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences considers the Best of the Best. Some enterprising company having released a program of the Oscar-nominated animated shorts, my wife and I decided to check ‘em out.
When I was a young fellow, in the misty depths of antiquity when telephone booths and video arcades were commonplace, I used to frequent arthouse cinemas in order to catch up on what was happening in animation. They would periodically show collections of animated shorts gathered from around the world, the most famous of which was the annual International Tournée of Animation. The program usually consisted of a couple bleak Kafka-esque treatises on the oppression of man from communist-bloc countries in eastern Europe, an often scatological Japanese entry, a couple of arty, trippy psychedelic lightshows, a beautiful lyrical sand- or glass- animation, a couple of comically violent entries from the USA, a few experimental computer animations (usually three minutes of a chrome-plated panther stiffly running across a lava field, or somesuch), a funny little thing from Pixar, and a couple of hilarious gems from the National Film Board of Canada. Here, watch one!
It was Awesome. And a new one every year!
It put me in mind of my childhood, watching the incomparable kids’ shows on WGN, when Garfield Goose would haul out the Little Theater Screen and they’d show some indifferently-dubbed foreign animation of a Slavic, or South American, or Micronesian folktale I’d never heard of, probably sold to the station as a package (cheap!), and I’d just drink it in, because in was all so strange and different.
So my wife and I went to see what was the Pinnacle of the Animation Art in the year 2019. We saw four (!) stop-motion animations, a form I thought was on the decline given the ubiquity of computer animation these days. In addition, there was a lovely glass-painted piece from Ireland, one computer animation, and two traditionally-animated works.
Hair Love was a superbly-done, traditional work, aggressively woke and very sweet— maybe too sweet; my wife said it felt like listening to soft-rock radio.
Daughter was stop-motion, and dealt with a woman attending to her father on his deathbed and reminiscing about her life with him. It simulated a handheld shaky-cam, which in a stop-motion film is something of a marvel. It was a bit dour for my taste.
Mémorable was a sensitive portrait of a woman caring for a man with dementia. This one was clay-animated, and showed his cognitive deterioration first-hand. Also a bit dour for me, but the depiction of mental decline in clay was pretty interesting.
Kitbull was a heartwarming story of animal cruelty and neglect, and also friendship. The kitten is hilarious.
Sister, made with felt puppets, was about a boy musing about his sister. There’s a dour twist at the end.
The Bird and the Whale was painted on glass, and was about a whale who learns to sing. Glass painting, like sand-painting, is animated on the fly, as each successive image is created over the previous one, recorded, then itself replaced. Lovely and visually fluid.
Henrietta Bulkowski told about a woman with a deformed spine who wants to be a pilot. The animator apparently was born with a disability. The puppets and sets are beautiful, and splendidly animated, but I’m not sure I like where this one went in the end.
Hors Piste was a computer animated tale of a couple of bumbling rescuers half-assedly trying to get an injured skier off the mountain. We guffawed at this one. Much guffawing! And it wasn’t trying to make some profound point, or manipulate our emotions. Just Lotsa Larfs.
And finally, there was a little minute-long computer-generated bagatelle called Maestro wherein a squirrel conducts a choir of other woodland creatures in a spirited rendition of Guerra Guerra from Bellini’s Norma. The birdie soloist is quite rousing, but the hedgehog section was… soooo cute!
We liked Hors Piste the best, with The Bird and the Whale second. Then we found out that neither of those was in contention— they were just filler to round out the program; they’re not even mentioned on the program’s website. So in my household, the Oscar goes to… nobody. Oh, all right, Kitbull. Still felt a bit manipulated, though.
How depressing. It seems animation has taken a disappointing turn lately. Technically magnificent, but the they’re either mawkish and manipulative or dour and weird. Oh well, Klaus is up for Best Animated Feature, and it’s absolutely gorgeous, and a nice holiday story to boot. Watch it on Netflix.
As for animated shorts, here’s another one from the National Film Board of Canada to cheer you up. Enjoy! And go hit YouTube; the old arthouse programs might be gone, but the Web has ’em out the digital Wazoo. Truly, it is a Golden Age!
Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring forgotten ruins, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.