The annual tradition of reviewing the Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts is upon us once more. How did this year stack up? Read on to find out! (Spoiler: Not good.)
The five nominations for 2014 are:
In addition, this year’s “highly commended additional films” shown include:
Reviews of each film follows, or you can pop right to the bottom of the nominations for our prediction of the winner and the summary of 2014’s nominated class!
Nominated Film #1: Get a Horse!
Get a Horse is the latest short from Walt Disney Animation Studios. It harkens back to days gone by with an homage to the 1920’s Mickey Mouse cartoons as it begins with the same rubber hose style and black and white 2D motif of the earliest Mickey cartoons. Soon after, though, the characters leap off the screen-within-a-screen and into “our world” where they keep their classic designs but become 3D animated models. Mickey sets out to battle Pete and save Minnie along with the help of a horse (hence the title).
A lot of people really enjoyed this short, it seems, from discussions I’ve had in person and online. I did not. The “classic Mickey” scenes lacked the charm you see in the old cartoons and played to a modern audience instead. The difficulty with doing that is that there’s a reason we don’t have classic style Mickey cartoons anymore: Audiences have no patience for them. If you watch a classic Mickey cartoon it does not move at a high speed pace, but lets each little scene within the short develop and, truthfully, MILKS each gag with extra cycles and actions.
This difference in style can’t be seen any better than once Mickey transforms into a 3D model, either. At this point the cartoon becomes best described as “frantic.” There’s no time to think, only action after action after action. Before the brain even processes one bit, it’s on to the next.
While I appreciate the romantic idea of going back in time and blending old Mickey with today’s technology, I just don’t think it works. Especially considering what Mickey has developed INTO. In the earliest days, Mickey was quite mean-spirited at times. After decades of development, though, no one would ever describe the world’s favorite mouse in that way. So in Get a Horse when Mickey is, no mincing words here, torturing Pete with Minnie cheering him on, it feels terrible. Mickey is not a hero here, but just as bad as the villain. There is no mercy from this version of Mickey Mouse. And that, I feel, is a problem given what Mickey has grown into over the years. The Mickey we know quivers in the presence of a fearsome bear and politely introduces himself. He does not drop a car on the bear’s head over and over until the bear is beaten nearly to death.
It’s this disconnect that I think holds Get a Horse back. What is a great idea on paper doesn’t quite translate given the time we live in and what Mickey has become. (Interestingly, there are zero promotional images from Disney online that show Mickey in the role of vengeful antagonist. All I could find was Pete looming over with Minnie in tow and Mickey looking on.)
Nominated Film #2: Mr. Hublot
After the wild and crazy pace of Get a Horse, Mr. Hublot slowed things down slightly with a quirky story of a man and robotic dog. Mr. Hublot exists in a world where machines and organic beings seem to be melded together (though the world is not really explained, we’re simply dropped into it). He seems to suffer from OCD and we follow him around his home and work as he flips light switches on and off and straightens picture frames that do not need straightened. Eventually he rescues an abandoned robotic dog and takes it in, only to have it grow to monstrous proportions and threaten his home and way of life. I won’t spoil the end, because it is in that moment that the film really comes together and shines. You should go watch it.
Of all the films this year, Mr. Hublot is the standout in my opinion. That isn’t to say it’s the best animated short I’ve ever seen. Much of the time it felt rather cliche and the style seemed very familiar overall. Aspects felt a bit forced, or nonsensical. Why did the robot dog grow like it did? Obviously in animation some questions don’t need answered, but that one kept bothering me. If the dog had been given a few more organic aspects I likely wouldn’t have wondered. At any rate, the film is still a good one, with depth of character and heart. Something very much lacking in most of the others. For that reason, it was my personal favorite of the bunch.
Nominated Film #3: Feral
Feral was perhaps the most interesting of the films we saw. Not because of the actual film, which I didn’t enjoy at all, but because of the discussion I had afterward. A friend of mine, who analyzes the complexities of films in the same way I analyze the animation, raved about the deep levels of Feral’s symbolism. Symbolism I absolutely didn’t see. It was most interesting to me to see his perspective on it, and reminded me that my opinion is by no means the ONLY opinion (a feeling that can creep in when you review things professionally).
Our personal discussion aside, I felt Feral was the stereotypical “art” animated film. It was visually stylized, and told an emotional story, but there was very little to bond with. It felt to me like art for art’s sake. The sort of piece of work that some people would stand around and say “Look at the way the artist used blue here to symbolize a tragic meeting of souls before they are violently torn apart” while the common museum-goer would probably remark “That’s a bunch of brush strokes of paint, why is that art?”
Though Feral was not my cup of animated tea, it was well crafted and very nicely animated. I’m not sure how they achieved the style they did, but if it was strictly 2D animation (and not a filter over 3D models) then they are incredible animators at keeping things solid and dimensional. At times the shapes and forms felt masterfully constructed.
Nominated Film #4: Possessions
Oh Possessions. How I wanted to love you.
Possessions is the story of a handyman of sorts, done in an extremely “Anime” style and with very “Anime” themes. Done well, though, with thought provoking ideas and a very likeable main character. While it probably wasn’t going to win any awards for “most original anything” it was still entertaining and enjoyable, and frankly that’s what an animated film SHOULD be.
Unfortunately it was all brought to its knees for me because the creators decided to use a 3D model with a 2D shader for the main character. Here you had lovely backgrounds and gorgeous artwork, and truly great composition if you were to freeze any given frame, but in motion it was a disaster. The 3D model rarely felt grounded to the 2D backdrops, and any scene of the character walking in “3D space” seemed completely out of place. It’s something most people would hardly notice (other than “something is off”) but as an animator it is daggers in the eyes. What was a magnificent piece of film was ruined by this choice.
I’m not sure WHY the choice was made, either. It was really unnecessary to have the character be in 3D, as no specific shots (that I noticed) required complicated actions best handled by a computer. The only thing I can imagine is that they chose to use a 3D model because it is easier to keep on-model in 3D, and they didn’t want the difficulty of keeping the character consistent in 2D. Which is a real shame, because you catch glimpses of what the film would be like in all-2D, and it looks great. Then the 3D disconnect slaps you in the face and you feel worse than if the whole film was badly animated in 3D in its entirety.
Nominated Film #5: Room on the Broom
Is there some Oscar requirement I do not know about that says “Every year we must nominate one made-for-TV kid’s short in the same style?” Granted last year this film was only in the “Highly recommended” category, but I still had to sit through it.
Room on the Broom was this year’s “The Gruffalo’s Child.” It looked nearly identical. It played to the exact same audience. And like The Gruffalo’s Child, it went on much, MUCH too long. It was a fun little story, based on a children’s book, and I don’t think it has any place being nominated for an Oscar. It’s extremely simple, extremely cliche, and panders to the audience doing absolutely nothing new or interesting.
The animation was passable. It was “fine.” The characters were also “fine.” The cat was amusing. The story was “fine” at best, and “totally average” at worst. Apart from the length, there was hardly anything BAD about Room on the Broom, but there was really nothing exceptional either. My only notion is that it slipped into the list of five nominations because the rest of the field was terrible. If it WAS terrible, I don’t know, I didn’t see the other shorts up for contention before the final cut. That’s the only explanation I can come up with, though.
And really, that’s the main theme of this year’s collection of nominated shorts: Average. There were no brilliant standouts like past years’ Paperman and La Luna. There were no extremely unique shorts like Fresh Guacamole and A Morning Stroll. There was a sad lack of deeply emotional pieces like Head Over Heels, Adam and Dog, and The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. I kept waiting for something more as each short went by, and it never came. The only blip on the radar was Mr. Hublot, and it reminded me a lot of Fantastic Flying Books but not quite as compelling.
I am aware that I can be overly critical when it comes to animated films. I pick at things that probably don’t deserve to be picked at, and demand a level of perfection few films in history ever achieve. And yet, animation is important to me. I want it to be pushed towards greatness. It’s easy to sit back and say “Yeah, this was a fun movie. It wasn’t great, but it was entertaining.” Animation SHOULD be entertaining, so that’s a great thing.
It can also be so much more. It has the power to whisk you to worlds unknown and into the lives of characters who only exists as pencil lines or 1’s and 0’s. It can tell stories that normal film simply can’t tell. It can stand the test of time for decade after decade, and literally change something inside you forever. And those are the films I hope are made. So please understand any over-criticism on my part is not out of cynicism or meanness. It is in the hopes of continuing to polish our craft, so that each thing is better than the last, and one day we are a part of the next Snow White or Pinocchio or Toy Story or The Lion King. Films that have changed the world, and changed the people in it.
So Who Wins the Oscar This Year?
I must admit, I’m torn. If I’m existing in the world we live in, I see Get a Horse taking the prize. I see the masses going for a blend of nostalgia and frantic action even if other films were superior. However my vote goes to what I hope will win, and that’s Mr. Hublot. With charm, character development, and emotion, Mr. Hublot is the film that SHOULD take home the Oscar. Will it? We’ll find out on March 2nd, 2014!
The Highly Commended Additional Films
With the official nominations out of the way, here are thoughts on the other films shown as part of the Shorts HD Presents presentation:
A La Francaise
A La Francaise was weird. It was a bunch of chickens being French. Animation wise it was okay, thought weight change was a serious issue. There was a cannonball throughout and it was constantly morphing from very heavy to sort-of heavy, and that was a distraction. It didn’t really seem to have a story, except maybe that one of the chickens was jotting down the secrets of the others and then at the end they all became known, and then the chickens started attacking each other. The entire piece felt disjointed and lacking a structure.
I think it had potential to be entertaining if not for the oddity of it all. It was as if we were dropped into a film halfway through and then missed something important that would have cause it to all make sense.
The Missing Scarf
The Missing Scarf was narrated by George Takei. If it had been narrated by anyone else, I don’t think it would have been nearly as successful. Goes to show you that voice acting (and who you choose) is vitally important in animation. As far AS animation goes, it was more graphic motion design than actual animation. It worked, but it wasn’t amazing or anything. It didn’t need to be, though, because it fit perfectly the style they were going for.
Some people in our group thought this short was hilarious, and some found it terrible. I was in the hilarious group, because of how over-the-top George Takei made it. My only complaint was that it could have been taken further, if the final question was answered with “Cheer up, buddy” and left it at that. It would have made it perfectly absurd.
The Blue Umbrella
The Blue Umbrella had a lot of great things going for it. Amazing rendering, for sure, and cute little story and characters, even if not very deep. Great music choice as well. The difficulty with The Blue Umbrella is that I saw it last year, and in close proximity to Paperman. Paperman was the far superior love story short, so it made me less impressed with The Blue Umbrella. Which isn’t fair at all to the film! At any rate, it was cute, short and sweet.
And as for the HOSTS…
One final thing I want to touch on is the “hosting” of this year’s shorts. Last year the creators of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore hosted the event, and they discussed their process and animation in general. It was fantastic! It told people how things are done in animation (which more non-animators really need to know) and was a great human element.
THIS year they had the neck and head of a giraffe and ostrich as the hosts. Realistic and extremely dull 3D models that pretended the animated world existed in Hollywood and talked about cartoon characters as if they were actors who they worked with the in the past. It was absolutely abysmal. The animation (and I use the term loosely) was unbelievably boring, and yet the lip sync (which was essentially all the animation there WAS) was badly done too. The jokes resonated with a few people in the theater, but mostly it was nervous “why is this happening?” laughter, and the majority of their “witty” banter wasn’t witty at all. I can’t stress enough how terrible it was. If anyone connected to the shorts theatrical release is reading this PLEASE bring back the style of 2013 and do not do this again. This year’s hosting was miserable.
Rather than end on a bad note, I will instead link to my favorite short I’ve ever seen during the past few years’ animated short programs. It wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, but it made me happier than any of the other shorts I’ve watched in any of the years. And so, here is Skylight from David Baas.