Monday, February 16, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Animated Short

Best Animated Short nominee The Dam Keeper was directed by Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutsumi.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Animated Short

The nominees are:

The Bigger Picture
The Dam Keeper
Me and My Moulton
A Single Life

Among the cooler, little-discussed trends in the last decade or so has been the resurgence of the animated short to accompany feature films. Major studios such as Dreamworks and Disney-Pixar have used their celebrated animated films to release equally impressive shorts, while the rise of digital animation has allowed smaller production houses to jump in the game with their own shorts.

John Lasseter, who oversees all of Pixar’s productions won his first Academy Award for Tin Toy, an animated short that was loosely adapted and expanded into Toy Story, which you may recognize as the film that launched the Pixar empire. Walt Disney, who won 22 Oscars, won 12 for Animated Short, including seven consecutive awards from 1934 to 1940.

Walt Disney Studios is in the mix once again this year, as it is almost every year, but a big studio is no guarantee of an Oscar anymore with talent from around the globe producing stunning work in a wide variety of animation styles. The nominees this year come from the U.S., the U.K., Norway, and the Netherlands. They range from just two minutes long to 18, but they all have something vital to say about the world we live in and how our interactions with people can have long-lasting effects.

The Dam Keeper (directed by Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutsumi) – I am not certain how anyone could see this film and not name it the best animated short of the year. With no qualifier, this is one of my favorite films of 2014. In just 18 minutes, The Dam Keeper manages to tackle tough subjects such as loneliness, isolation, bullying, the environment, and forgiveness while still telling a touching story about friendship and featuring the most beautiful animation of this group.

In a world populated by anthropomorphic animals, a small pig operates a giant windmill that keeps a poisonous cloud of pollution from overrunning his village. Every morning, he wakes up and gets the windmill spinning to protect the town, then he heads to school, where he is physically and emotionally bullied by his classmates for not being as attractive or smart or popular as they. Despite the abuse from his peers and the indifference of his teachers and other adults, the pig performs his duties to preserve the lives of an ungrateful populace.

It is heady stuff for a cartoon, but it shows just how powerful these shorts can be, stoking feelings of rage, despair, and pain, all for the plight of this little human-like pig. Anyone who has ever been bullied like this knows what it is to feel like nothing you can do will ever make it stop, like the pain will never go away. It is a sad truth that many children live with every day, but most suffer in silence because they are convinced they deserve this, so they walk around invisible to everyone until they truly are gone. The Dam Keeper understands this, and that alone is worth celebrating.

Feast (directed by Patrick Osborne) – As the Walt Disney Studios entry this year, Feast was released to theaters to play before Animated Feature nominee Big Hero 6. It tells the story of one man’s life as seen through the eyes of his faithful, hungry dog. The animation is gorgeous, as one would expect from a Disney production, and the story is straightforward and touching.

Rescued from an alley by the man who becomes his owner, the dog sees the world through the lens of the table scraps and canned food he receives. As the man’s life changes, so does the dog’s food, for better and for worse. What is remarkable about this film is how effortlessly Osborne, working from a story by Nicole Mitchell and Raymond Persi, is able to tell a deeply affecting tale about depression in the background of one adorable dog’s never-ending feast.

A Single Life (directed by Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins, and Job Roggeveen) – A brilliant little story that goes by in a flash, I only wish it were longer, but its brevity is the point. A woman receives a mysterious vinyl record. When she plays it, she finds that if she speeds up the record, she can fast forward through her life. If she plays it backward, she goes back in time.

It does not have the fanciest animation of the bunch, but it is clever, entertaining, and surprisingly poignant. In just two minutes of run time, Blaauw, Oprins, and Roggeveen lay out the case for stopping to appreciate the music rather than trying to skip ahead to the good parts because no matter how long it plays, the record will come to an end.

The Bigger Picture (directed by Daisy Jacobs) – Two bickering adult brothers argue over who will care for their dying mother. Though it is clear they were never close, the longer their mother clings to life, the wider the gap between the brothers grows. It is an honest, low-key examination of how strained family relationships can be altered by the death of a loved one, and its story will be familiar to anyone who has experienced a similar situation.

The immediately striking animation is among the most unique and innovative I have seen in recent years, as Jacobs uses six-foot-tall painted characters in life-size sets to tell her story. By filming on live sets, Jacobs imparts a tactile feel to the film that makes the world seem lived in and imperfect, while at the same time giving depth to the frame that is lacking in most non-computer-generated animation. The style is at first startling in its oddness, but ultimately, it is key to creating the reality of the story.

Me and My Moulton (directed by Torill Kove)Me and My Moulton is about a girl who comes from “the weird family.” You know the one. They don’t dress like everyone else, eat like everyone else, or live like everyone else. For all intents and purposes, they are regular folks. They just seem odd to the outside world, and when you are a child coming of age, there is nothing worse than seeming odd to the outside world. They live above a “normal” family, and all day, the girl wishes her family were more like the downstairs neighbors.

The animation will remind some of children’s cartoons such as those you might find on PBS, and the story of learning to love who you are and where you come from certainly takes its cues from that style of cartoon as well. Kove is the only director in this group who is a previous nominee. She has three nominations in total, and she won this award for her 2006 animated short The Danish Poet, which employed a similar hand-drawn style. The Academy clearly likes her work, but Me and My Moulton is probably at the back of the line this year.

The final analysis

If anything other than The Dam Keeper or Feast wins this award, it will go down as one of the most shocking upsets of the night. The Dam Keeper is the most deserving on both a story and an animation level. Despite wins for big studios in the past, the Academy is rarely swayed by the big names behind a production in this category, usually awarding the best work – a novel concept, I know – but Feast would not be an unworthy winner.

The Bigger Picture won the British Academy of Film and Television award for short animation, but like Boogaloo and Graham in the live action short category, it did not compete there against any of the other Academy Award nominees. The innovation of The Bigger Picture may be enough to sway voters, and the film certainly has an emotional core, but this one probably comes down to the two American films in the lineup, The Dam Keeper and Feast.

Will win: The Dam Keeper
Should win: The Dam Keeper

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