It’s a strange thing to see the 2015 Oscar-nominated animated shorts and Mortdecai on the same day. But that’s what I did a few days ago, for reasons too boring to mention. Anyways, the public’s distaste for the latter movie is well documented so I’ll spare the jokes. And besides, I prefer to use my humor to bring light instead of spread darkness.
Instead, I want to talk about the 2015 Oscar-nominated animated shorts. The truth is, movies like Mortdecai suck because nobody gives a shit about them. They are huge behemoths with unlimited budgets and no creative stakes, made by people so successful that they’re bored with the whole thing. These shorts are the polar opposite of that: small in scope, very personal, and meticulously made. If something is up on the screen in one of these, you know it has a very good reason for being there. Design students have to design tons of chairs before they can move on to bigger things like buildings and stuff. Mortdecai is a gross McMansion and these are painstakingly built, beautiful chairs.
The first film in the program is Me and My Moulton, a 14-minute simply animated Norwegian/Canadian short about three sisters coming to terms with their eccentric family. This one definitely felt like a “short film” more than an “animated short” in the tradition of Warner Brothers or Disney. It’s one of those stories with a good lesson for kids that everyone’s like “oh, well adults can like it too.” Like a children’s book you’d find in Park Slope or something. It’s cute without trying too hard, and the jokes all work. Also maybe noteworthy that towards the beginning of this they show one of the characters completely naked as though it’s no big deal. Which it isn’t! And that’s exactly what’s great about these shorts: unlike The Big Bang Theory or Mortdecai, there’s an awareness on some subconscious level that anything could happen next.
Next up is Feast (USA), a six-minute film from Disney Animation Studios that tells the story of a guy’s life through the lens of his dog. Specifically the food he drops on the floor – French fries when he’s single in his 20s, then grown-up spaghetti, then a fancy artichoke dish when he’s mature and trying to impress a date, etc. Although it gets a little predictable (oh, they’re married now, oh now they have a kid), it’s a really cool idea executed well and with heart. The Disney Company is bad, but this movie is good.
Next up is probably my favorite film of the series, The Bigger Picture. If Me and My Moulton is about learning to accept that things aren’t always exactly how you want them, The Bigger Picture is about learning that life can really fucking suck sometimes and you just have to deal with it. Appropriately, this film asks a lot from you. The style is hybrid of oil painted animation and what looks like Claymation, with some other materials thrown in for good measure, and a lot of the storytelling is expressionistic so you’re not sure what’s real and what’s not. You have to focus on it hard, and consequently some stuff gets lost – a poop (I think) joke got nothing from the audience that had just gone nuts when the cartoon dog ate ice cream. The plot is about two brothers who don’t get along deciding to put their mother in a nursing home. It gets really serious for a little while, and ends with them both looking at their mother’s dead body and bursting out laughing. You get the idea that director Daisy Jacobs thinks all this is very funny. It’s great.
The next film, A Single Life, reminded me of the best Looney Toons cartoons in tone and how it focuses on one idea the whole time. The premise: a Pixary-looking character gets an envelope on her doorstep one day with a record in it. She puts the record on and realizes that the record is linked to her life’s timeline, where she can fast-forward it and go ahead in time, rewind it and go back in time, etc. Like a classic improv group game, there are like 4-5 surprising beats to hit with this, get through those and you’re out. Two minutes is all you need.
The Dam Keeper (18 minutes, USA) is where things really start getting dark. Although I would argue this is a comedy, some might say it gets a little serious when the main character – a pig – gets bullied by the other animals at school and then watches the entire town get swallowed up in a huge cloud of ash while he sits there in his insane looking welder’s helmet-like gas mask. There’s also the more subtly questionable morality of having a character sweetly comfort him by drawing pictures of the bullies and taping them in urinals. Fire with fire, I suppose. Anyways, this is a fucked up film. The only “line” of “dialogue” is when their teacher, a fat bulldog, barks at one of the students. Worth the price of admission alone.
That rounds out the actual nominated shorts, but the program goes on with a few more honorable mentions. Sweet Cocoon is a six-minute French short about two characters that reminded me of Pumbaa and Timon engaged in a gag from Big Hero 6 in that Toy Story style of animation. It’s one joke that kind of goes a little long, but ultimately is executed well and has a good message for the kiddies. Well, almost. The main character gets eaten by an eagle at the end for no reason. Hahahaha.
Footprints (four minutes, USA) is the latest from animator Bill Plympton (Guard Dog, 2004), who won an Academy Award for best short film in 1987 and I thiiiiiiiiink this movie is about gun control or something? Just kidding, it is in a really heavy-handed way. But it’s cool, it got some laughs just from the animation – a style kind of like Dr. Katz crossed with Ralph Steadman – and hell, he’s right about the gun thing. You can hold your pee and extra four minutes, can’t you?
Just kidding, it’s actually eight minutes, as there’s another short. Duet (four minutes, USA) is the story of a boy and girl who grow up together and then get married, etc etc. The style is cool, white on dark blue, and told with the kind of manic continuous transitions as were in Fantasia, but with much narrower scope. A little saccharine for my tastes, but then again, I don’t like sweets. They’re bad for my cholesterol. But if you’re young enough where you don’t have to worry about that kind of thing, you’ll probably like Duet.
Just kidding again, there’s one more. And the last one is a real doozie. Bus Story (11 minutes, Canada/UK) takes place in a tiny little mountain town where the people kind of look like otters, and is about a woman who finally gets her dream job of driving a bus. She doesn’t really say much, but we can glean from her reactions to the shitty teenager students and asshole boss that she has a sweet but knowing point of view. The animation style isn’t overly complicated, sort of like an understated Rocko’s Modern Life, and none of the characters are purely good or purely bad. There are risky jokes, like how she almost runs over a kid while getting the bus stuck. Like, “why don’t we throw a kid almost dying in there, it’ll be funny.” And ultimately it’s a story about empowerment – she’s just this lady who is happy driving a bus. She fucks up at it sometimes, but also everyone else in the story fucks up too.
These films all have an actual point of view, and the people who made them cared. Also, guess what? They’re good. If nothing else, the experience of watching animated short films in a theater is novel, and you can bring a date who will be like “oohh this person is so quirky.” They’re playing at the IFC Center in New York and the Landmark Nuart in Los Angeles, and probably other places. Go see these and say no to Mortdecai. You’ll be better off culturally, and spiritually.