Sunday, February 4, 2018

THE 2018 OSCAR ANIMATED SHORTS TAKE ON BULLYING, DEATH, AND AGING

A scene from the animated short NEGATIVE SPACE.
It is always a pleasure to watch the Academy Awards animated short nominees. They are perennially a highlight of the awards season. Once again, Landmark Theaters are showing the shorts in the Animated, Documentary and Live Action categories starting February 9. The five finalists on the animated list this year are truly exceptional. Picking a favorite is difficult. Predicting the one that's likely to win come Oscar night on March 4th isn't as tough.

Thematically, the shorts this year are darker than in the past. Even the Pixar entry, while still accessible and delightful, is about the serious subject of bullying. Three of the other animated entries concern death and the fifth is about an aging athlete feeling the melancholy of nostalgia. All are very adult, despite their window dressing of cartoonishness.


LOU

Pixar’s latest is as masterful as ever, visually resplendent, and daring without one word of dialogue uttered during its seven-minute running time. The story takes place on a school playground and concerns a bully who loves to steal toys from the other children at play. This pint-sized villain is a neckless thug, dressed in dark colors, running around and swiping beloved toys without discretion. A little girl’s doll, a boy’s football, even a GameBoy – he’s filched them all. Watching him is “Lou,” the Lost and Found bin against the wall of the school. The objects inside the box – two baseballs, a jump rope, and a red hoodie, just to name a few – magically form a humanistic ‘guardian spirit’ and soon “Lou” becomes the bully’s adversary. The brat will get a taste of his own medicine as the anthropomorphic spirit ends up snagging his backpack. From there, the computer-generated short turns into one big game of Keep Away, with the bag battered back and forth, as the bully is taught a lesson in sharing and getting along with others.

Written and directed by Dave Mullins, LOU almost plays like pantomime, or a silent film short from the early days of cinema. There is a Harold Lloyd quality to the intricate choreography and physical danger present throughout the ‘cat & mouse’ on the playground. And because LOU is done wordlessly, though accompanied by acute sound effects editing and an energetically syncopated score by Christophe Beck, it has universal appeal and should rise to Oscar victory. 


DEAR BASKETBALL
If Pixar doesn’t prevail, a legendary animator from Disney just might. Glen Keane has done fantastic character work on such classic cartoons as THE LITTLE MERMAID, ALADDIN, POCAHONTAS, TARZAN, and TANGLED, yet he's never claimed an Oscar. The work he does in DEAR BASKETBALL is as sublime as anything he's ever done and could change all that. His animation here is dramatic and moving.  Just try and watch this five-minute short without choking up. 
DEAR BASKETBALL was written and narrated by another legend, Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant. His story is a love letter to the game that obsessed him as a child and took him from the neighborhood courts to the vaulted venues of the NBA. Keane’s animation tells the story of Bryant’s memories by blending one scene into another in a morphing magic act. Little Kobe’s rolled up tube sock that he used as a makeshift ball turns into a real basketball in the batting of an eye. The whole short is done this way, moving through Bryant's life and career, from college to The Forum in Inglewood to his championship celebrations. And at the end, Bryant faces up to his body betraying him as every athlete must when they are too old to play the game. It’s all done in a pencil portrait style against a yellowed paper background that gives it such bittersweet nostalgia.


A third legend associated with the project is veteran composer John Williams. What a coup it was to get the Oscar-winning composer of feature-length films to do a short, but this one is worthy of his talents. The film may very well win with such prestigious players attached to it, but could Bryant’s reputation hurt it too? In the season of #TimesUp, his past history of sexual transgressions could inhibit voters from breaking his way. It would be too ironic if those kinds of memories trumped the more lovely ones in his story onscreen.


NEGATIVE SPACE

This five-minute stop-motion short from France, written and directed by Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter, creates a memory play too as a man reminisces about his father’s propensity for neatness and order. It’s an adaptation of a Ron Koertge poem and to date, this short has won 52 prizes and played at 131 festivals. At the center of the tale is the man’s remembrance of bonding with his father over a properly-packed suitcase. You might not think that clothes magically folding on their own and socks rolling up would make for enthralling animation, but it does. (What is it with magical clothing this year in the shorts?) 


The directing team works in Baltimore, where their company Tiny Inventions has done dozens of commercials for products such as Ralph Lauren and Ben & Jerry’s, but their short feels almost European in style and manner. Their odd-looking characters are dwarfed by their imposing surroundings. The editing is subdued.  And the soundtrack lets as much quiet fill the time as underscoring. 

There's wonderful detail in every frame too that demands a second viewing. The lead character's pinkish nose seems inconsequential at first until you realize at the end that it's that way due to crying which the filmmakers do not show. It’s a quiet and quirky short, telling an intimate tale of childhood, as organized and precise as those perfectly packed suitcases.


 REVOLTING RHYMES

Based on Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s book of the same name, this animated joint effort by Magic Light Pictures and Triggerfish Animation is a dark and twisted computer-generated cartoon that blends classic fairy tales into a modern morality one. Dahl’s book spoofed six stories, but this 28-minute short concentrates on just three. Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Three Little Pigs all share geography here, and it's a world full of the vengeance and violence. 

It all starts in a diner where a middle-aged nanny sits in a booth having a cup of tea before she'll venture across the street to babysit two children. A wolf then enters the restaurant, dressed in a trench coat out of film noir, and sits down to tell her his tale of woe. Flashbacks then illustrate how Little Red took out two in his family and how his grievances connect to Snow White and those pigs. Thrown into the mix are gambling dwarves, ruthless bankers, stolen mirrors, and hidden pistols in knickers. 


Directors Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer tell their story with a sly, droll edge that is veddy, veddy British. The voice work of Dominic West, Tamsin Greig, Bertie Carvel and Rob Brydon is understated perfection, with West being particularly impressive voicing the narrating wolf. The animation is full of visual wit, and the character designs have a sophistication to them that is definitely for adults, not children. 

The talents behind REVOLTING RHYMES went to the Oscars in 2011 with THE GRUFFALO and in 2013 with ROOM ON THE BROOM. They came home empty-handed, but this could be the year finally that finally changes their luck. Can they ride the #MeToo vibe? We shall see, but suffice it to say, Dahl’s Red White and Snow White kick significant ass here and the whole spook is a hoot and a half.


GARDEN PARTY 

The newer voters who joined the Academy this year indeed moved the dial towards modernity by awarding Guillermo del Toro’s dark fantasy with 13 nominations. They also recognized Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiography and helped her established new records as a female filmmaker. And Jordan Peele’s horror tale netted him a hat-trick with nominations for producing, directing and writing. One might be inclined to think that such progressive thinking could also allow Oscar gold to go to GARDEN PARTY, the darkest of the lot. If so, the Academy would really be upping their derring-do as this is perhaps the most disturbing animated short in the history of the awards.

The story of GARDEN PARTY seems at first to merely be about a couple of frogs who wander into the estate of a wealthy man, taking advantage of all the splendor in their midst. At the beginning of this 7-minute entry from France, a bullfrog and a smaller frog check out the pool which is noticeably unattended. Windows and doors to the mansion are open too, so a couple of frogs venture inside and discover all sorts of marvels in the kitchen. But why is the house so empty?

These creatures are all rendered with a detail and vividness that one would expect from an HD documentary on Animal Planet. At times, you forget that you’re watching something that's animated, that’s how realistic everything is done here. Particularly impressive are the countless water scenes, one of the most difficult things to animate, yet here they look effortless. 


As the story continues, a sense of dread starts to seep in.  Why does that surveillance camera have a bullet hole in it? What made the bedroom such a mess? And why is there a constant buzzing of flies in the background? Was this establishment once a gangster’s paradise, emphasis on the gangster? Suffice it to say, the shocker of an ending to this short is anything but, ahem, garden-variety.  

Directed by Illogic Collective (six French 3-D artists) during their studies at the MoPA animation school in France, GARDEN PARTY served as their graduation film. It’s won a slew of awards already, and it may soon add an Oscar to the mantel. That is if the Academy can embrace such a dark and disturbing tale. Could 2018 be the year that THE SHAPE OF WATER prevails, along with a GARDEN PARTY pool full of unsavory shapes? We shall see in a few weeks.


(The Oscar Shorts open at the Landmark Theater in Chicago on Friday, February 9th, and at multiple screens across the nation.) 

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