Saturday, June 16, 2012

The World's Greatest Animation, Part Two

Welcome back to the second part of my review series of the DVD, "The World's Greatest Animation," the DVD chronicling most of the Oscar Winners/Nominees from 1978-1990.

Your Face (1987) Oscar Nominee
Bill Plympton

(I can't find a Youtube link, so this will have to do.)

Anyone who knows about my taste in animation knows that I absolutely adore the work of Bill Plympton. The guy is a creative genius, considering how he usually comes up with the ideas and draws all of the animation frames himself, and I love his deranged sense of humor, his imaginative concepts, and of course, his funny, inventively bizarre animation. And this was the short where he made a name for himself. The premise is pretty basic, a guy sings about his lover’s face, and while he does so, his own head shape-shifts, morphs, and distorts. Bill Plympton took this concept and just went wild with it. The visual gags are just hilarious and surreal, especially considering how, no matter what happens to his face, it always returns to the normal shape somehow, and he doesn’t even seem to notice it happening.

Probably the most famous image from this short was the image of the guy with another version of himself coming in horizontally through his head by entering and exiting through the ears. One of the reasons that I love animation is that you can get away with showing surreal visuals like this in a way that’s acceptable and much more believable than you can if you tried to do it in live-action, with all the CGI and that stuff.

Funny bit of trivia, by the way: Longtime Plympton collaborator Maureen McElheron not only wrote the song, but she actually SANG it as well. That’s right, that man’s voice is actually her voice slowed down. Obviously, Plympton had to make do with what he had since, well, his films are made fairly cheap.

The ending, in which the hill he’s sitting on suddenly grows a mouth and swallows him up, is outlandishly funny, but it’s also bizarre and totally out of nowhere. I guess Bill Plympton was trying to find some way to end it, so, after all that odd imagery, I guess he decided to add something even more odd and unexpected, since the audience is pretty much capable of handling anything at this point, no matter how weird, that could occur as a punchline, and that’s part of what I love about Bill’s work: nothing is too out-of-place, no story or plot element is too contrived, too ludicrous, or too frustratingly inane, it just adds to the surrealism and atmosphere that his work tends to contain, and he makes such oddities humorously crazy and fun to watch to the point that you don’t really feel the need to question them. There’s no real point in doing so. It’s just great animation from a talented mind that really takes advantage of the medium, and this short serves as a basic demonstration of what Bill Plympton is capable of, in terms of animation.

I’ve lost track of how much I’ve watched this short from the past to the present, but I’ve seen it so many times and it just never gets tiring for me. It combines my loves of bizarre humor, great music and fantastic cartoon animation into one short film that I totally recommend to anybody, animation fanatic or otherwise.

RATING: *****/***** (5/5)

A Greek Tragedy (1986) Oscar Winner
Nicole Van Goethem

I’ll have to admit, this is one where I don’t really understand what the point is. The basic premise of the short involves these three caryatids trying to keep a crumbling temple together even after all these centuries. But after several things cause the rest of the temple to shatter, they all go off prancing into the distance. Um, OK, can someone tell me any more about this? Is this supposed to be feminist or something, because it kinda comes off like that, what with them being freed from this mundane task, but I’m not for certain. Anyways, the weakness with this one is that it has its interesting premise, but it doesn’t really go anywhere with it, just a few scenes with them trying to keep the temple up, it eventually breaks and they go off skipping and singing into the distance. Um… fun? Yeah, I’m clueless.

Again, I don’t get what exactly gave it the Oscar for that year, since it’s not really anything special, but it’s still an amusing short, nonetheless. The animation is well-done, the expressions and poses are fun, and it is clever seeing how they try to handle the ultimately-futile task of keeping the temple up even with the distractions and one of them acting differently. The character designs are funny because, unless you were told or you paid close attention, you wouldn’t be able to tell that those were actually women. Aside from the breasts, they don’t look anything like your typical cartoon female, and the only other hint is their vocalizations. Other than that, everything else about them is cartoonishly exaggerated, but I guess I do like that, since it shows that female characters don’t always have to be depicted the same way and the same style, they can look just about as odd as the men in some cases.

For some reason, I do like that closing shot that depicts two of the females in the distance prancing gracefully, while the other one runs past in a comedic manner. It’s very fun to look at, and it shows a nice contrast with the characters. And that little theme at the end? Dude, that will stick in your head pretty easily. I still find myself humming it on occasion, mainly when picturing the above mentioned scene.

I will say that even if I don’t get why this actually won the Oscar, I don’t get why so many people make a big deal that “Luxo Jr.” by Pixar didn’t win the award and this one did. I mean, I love Pixar, and that was a groundbreaking short that still holds up pretty well, animation-wise, but I wouldn’t go hating on the winner just because of that ordeal, especially since Pixar would eventually go on to do bigger and better things.

But yeah, it’s an okay short. Nothing truly Oscar worthy and I don’t really understand the point of it, but it has some nice things going for it. Give it a watch if you think it looks or sounds good.

RATING: ***/***** (3/5)

Anna & Bella (1985) Oscar Winner
Borge Ring

Netherlands native Borge Ring is considered to be one of the best animators in the world, and this Oscar winning short is definite proof of that. It basically depicts two elderly sisters looking at photos of their youth and reminiscing over them in what would eventually be revealed as taking place in the afterlife, and it serves as a brilliant depiction of what cartoony hand-drawn animation is capable of, both in style and in story. The film manages to cram so much emotion into eight minutes, and this results in a short that’s funny, cute, delightful, heartbreaking, dramatic, and sweet, all at once. Borge was previously nominated for an Oscar with “Oh My Darling,” another short that I really like, so it’s nice to see that the second time was the charm here.

It’s a very down-to-earth, “real life” kind of story about the lives of these sisters that could have easily been done in live-action, and yet it works brilliantly with the cartoon animation, due to how the medium is utilized and how it enhances the story, and that’s one of the reasons why I love it. Borge’s animation seems to make really good use of visual metaphors and clever transitions, most notably in one scene where the girls are standing in a field of flowers and as the flowers grow, Anna’s breasts and hips pop out in a violent jutting motion, before morphing into a young woman with a nice use of squash and stretch animation, then Bella follows with a simple pop. And just to add to the metaphor, men are compared to bees as they fly into the scene.

This one uses cartoon gags and reactions in a unique way, and you can never really tell if it’s meant to be for comedic or dramatic effect, since they often show up at moments that tend to be emotional. For instance, when the guy that Anna is with goes off with Bella and they literally fly to the moon, Anna literally shatters like glass. Later, following a car crash, Anna tries to save her sister by grabbing onto her ghostly form as it tries to leave Bella’s unconscious body. Things like that leave you wondering if you should laugh or be emotionally invested. Doug Walker of Nostalgia Critic fame stated that the sign of a great film was being able to make you feel and combine all sorts of emotions to give you a new and bizarre feeling, and this is a short that is totally driven on the emotions and visuals, so it utilizes them really well here.

Considering that Borge Ring used to be a musician, it’s interesting to note how the music is used, in that it was a specific theme played in different variations throughout the short. A leitmotif, if you will. Once you’ve seen this short a few times, it becomes easier to identify, and you might even find yourself thinking about it or humming it.

Again, this is a really down-to-earth story showing the life of these two sisters, and it’s still very interesting, even with the animation tricks to enhance the story. Sometimes showing the life of an individual, or even two, oftentimes is all you need to create a great movie or short. I honestly have no complaints about this one except that I would have liked to see more, but I guess that’s a good complaint. Anna & Bella is creative, it’s fun to watch, it’s a wonderful, well-told story, and you really feel for these two sisters since their emotions and character are depicted really well. It’s easy to see why Borge won the Oscar for this one, since it’s an all-around brilliant animated short that proves that hand-drawn animation can really be used for more realistic stories when handled properly in a way that takes advantage of the medium and turns it into an experience. Check it out. You won’t regret it.

Sadly, however, on February 1st of this year, the house of Borge Ring and his wife, Joanika, burned to the ground, but they made it out unharmed. There has been a fundraising website started up in order to help them recover, since they have been getting on in the years. I would donate to them myself, but I don’t really have Paypal or anything like that yet. If you want to donate to them, though, you can find it here: Help Borge Ring I feel such a talented animator deserves the help, don’t you?

RATING: *****/***** (5/5)

The Big Snit (1985) Oscar Nominee
Richard Condie

If you wanted a short film that was weird in description but wonderful in execution, I’d probably point to The Big Snit. It ranked at #25 on the 50 Greatest Cartoons, and it’s another one from The National Film Board of Canada, this time, by the outlandishly talented Richard Condie, who helped Cordell Baker create “The Cat Came Back.” This short was enough to get me interested in the rest of his output.

This one tells a rather unusual story, which starts by depicting a man and wife playing Scrabble. The man’s struggling with the game, since his letters are all ‘E’s, so while he’s trying to decide his next move, the wife goes off and vacuums around the house. These two have rather odd habits. Sometimes the woman’s eyes go out of whack, so she has to constantly take them off and shake them a little to fix them, and the man has a tendency to saw at certain points. In fact, the habit of the latter sort of sets up things, since he’s a fan of this show called “Sawing For Teens”, which gets interrupted by a news announcement that nuclear war has broken out that both of them miss, due to the guy falling asleep while watching and the woman, well, vacuuming. That, and because the cat chewed on the cord to the TV, leaving them completely oblivious to the mayhem going on outside. Things get crazier when the wife catches his husband looking at her Scrabble letters, and they get into a big argument that winds up with the wife crying. The man looks at a photo of the two at happier times and, stricken with guilt, proceeds to cheer her up by playing on a little accordion. They reconcile, unaware that their world had come to an end.

It’s hard to define what makes this one work, it just works. The animation is fun, the character design is stylistically strange and simplistic, the two characters themselves are easy to relate to, the dialogue has a natural flow to it, the backgrounds are incredibly detailed, (and it’s worth watching through again to try and catch some of the hidden visual gags,) the humor is bizarre and quirky, the ending is touching, and the story can be looked at on different levels. In the 50 Greatest Cartoons book, John Canemaker said that “the film remains with you long after the laughter because the message is strong” and that it is “about the fragility of life and is recommended for people of all ages who may at one time or another have wasted precious time being in a snit.” And that’s a pretty good way of putting it. Of course, there’s other ways of seeing it and describing it as well, but that pretty much sums up why this is often looked at as one of the greatest animated shorts.

I guess another part of what makes this so great is because of how surprisingly poignant it is for such a goofy looking cartoon. Using a nuclear war as a backdrop for a couple outburst is a pretty dark concept, and yet the approach is so hilarious, so kooky, and so lighthearted. Richard Condie had even stated, “I tried to make it as funny as I could, yet there’s a serious undercurrent I can’t explain.” Well, whatever the case, the fact that he was able to combine weird and wacky with drama and pathos so well is truly a remarkable accomplishment.

As much as Anna and Bella deserved the Oscar win, this one is just as Oscar-worthy as that and some of the other shorts that I really love on this video. And even if it didn’t win the Academy Award for that year, it’s still highly respected and still worthy of being considered a classic cartoon short. I totally recommend it, especially since it’s such a one-of-a-kind film that depicts an off-beat, but still very down-to-earth portrayal of humanity. Never before and never since has a game of Scrabble gone this crazy.

RATING: *****/***** (5/5)

Coming next, a really strange game of charades, an obnoxious idiot badly reciting "New York, New York", another guy with a shape-shifting head, and one of the most annoying, monotonous animated shorts ever created by man.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The World's Greatest Animation DVD Review, Intro and Part One

Encore Records, a record/CD/movie rental store in Austin, was having a closing down sale, and one of the things I managed to get my hands on was an out-of-print DVD known as “The World’s Greatest Animation,” containing independent animated shorts from 1978-1990 that either won the Academy Award or were nominated for it. I love independent animated shorts, since they offer a very fascinating glance at animation outside of such big names like Disney, Warner Bros., Dreamworks, or anything else that has done animation over the years, even more so in the 70s and 80s, because at that period, from what I heard, animation was pretty much at a dead zone.

Most of the major animation studios of the Golden Age were closed down and Disney was struggling since the death of its founder, TVs were polluted with stale, lifeless cartoons from the likes of Hanna-Barbera and Filmation, who were using time-saving tactics to animation that often involved outsourcing to studios in other countries, (not usually a bad thing if they were able to do animation well enough, especially nowadays, but the overseas studios probably deserve at least a little more credit than they’re given,) the idiots responsible for the Action for Children’s Television (ACT) had forced these TV cartoons to include moralistic messages, even though cartoons really weren’t meant primarily for children in the first place, and there wasn’t a real place for an aspiring, innovative cartoonist/animator to go. Well, Ralph Bakshi did manage somehow, but even then, animation was still suffering a dark age around this time. Granted, it did get better by the 80s, with the groundbreaking notion of computer animation and the late 80s helping to start of an animation renaissance, but even then, it still had a lot of those stereotypical “Saturday Morning Cartoons” lingering around on TV at that time that were mainly considered “Half-Hour Toy Commercials” for the kids. Seriously, the music was awesome in the 70s and 80s, so why couldn’t the animation be as well? (I have nothing against these “Half-Hour Toy Commercials,” but a little more effort in the animation and storytelling would be nice for some of them.)

I don’t know what exactly had lead animation in that period to that state originally, but whatever happened, there was a lot that had to be done in order to keep interest in this under-appreciated art form alive. And a lot of independent animators were trying their dead-level best to do so, and it’s nice that there’s video compilations dedicated to displaying the work of such talents like this.

I watched this DVD, and since I’m all for showing that animation isn’t merely kiddie fodder and that it can truly be considered both art and entertainment for all ages when done really well, as well as supporting the cultural diversity of animation from other countries, I felt like stating my opinions and ratings for each short, since some I feel are better than others and others I feel were weak in comparison, in spite of winning the Academy Award. So I’m going to watch through them, some a few more times, and then I’m going to review them, before giving an overall review stating which shorts I feel are the best and which ones make the collection worth hunting down. The format will go like this:

Title (Year) Oscar Winner/Nominee

Video (if available)

Review Body

Star Rating out of 5

It’s possible that these reviews might contain spoilers, depending on whether you consider short animation as having spoilers or not, so I suggest watching the provided shorts before actually reading the reviews. And when I recommend them in the review, that means that I suggest these for anyone to watch as well, even if they don’t read the reviews. It might seem confusing how I’m going about this, but hopefully, you can judge for yourself if you want to watch the short first and then read the review or vice-versa. And it will be divided into parts since these reviews tend to get kinda long. Well, anyways, on with the show!

Creature Comforts (1990) Oscar Winner
Nick Park

Aardman animator and Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park made this short as part of a series called “Lip Synch”, and interviewed British non-actors in a similarity to the “man on the street” Vox Pop interviews. The basic concept for this short involved interviewing zoo animals about how they feel living there. Nick used ordinary people of a housing development, an old people’s home and a family that lived in a local shop as subjects and asking them about things from a zoo animal’s perspective, and then the clay animation was done to accompany the recordings. The effect it creates is rather stunning. It does get hard to understand what they’re saying at times, probably because of the accents or the age of the interviewees or the actual recordings themselves, but I guess that’s part of what gives the dialogue a sense of authenticity.

Some of the animals interviewed include three polar bears, a gorilla, terrapins, and a mountain lion that complains about the food looking “more like dog food than food proper for wild animals,” as well as the “lack of space” and the “grass with pollen that gives me hay fever every day!” The mountain lion shows up the most in the film, and if what I heard was correct, he was voiced by a Brazilian student living in Bristol at the time, which is why the lion mentions Brazil at one point.

I do love the concept of interviewing zoo animals and learning what they think of their living quarters and their different perspectives of their life. If only that kind of thing would be capable in real life, that would probably lead to a greater understanding between man and animal. And while it’s not laugh-out-loud funny, there are some really amusing background events, including a bird that pulls on the beak of another one while the one being interviewed doesn’t notice. And even the subjects being interviewed look sort of humorous, noticeably this bush baby, whose giant-looking eyes are actually magnified by the glasses he’s wearing and his actual eyes are pretty small.

I heard that a “Creature Comforts” series was made recently built around this premise, but I haven’t seen it yet, so I wouldn’t know if it’s good or not. The original short is definitely really good, though. It takes a couple of watches to fully appreciate it or understand it, heck, I’ve watched it quite a few times and I feel like I haven’t quite understood all of the dialogue yet, but I still like it enough that I recommend it to fans of clay animation, Aardman, or Wallace & Gromit. It’s just a really clever, inventive short.

RATING: ****/***** (4/5)

Balance (1989) Oscar Winner
Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein

Wow, was this one just… weird. It’s a good kind of weird, however, especially given the way this short was made. It excels in its simplicity, using one setting, five silent characters and one object to express a surprisingly heavy theme involving human behavior.

The setting is a very unique one. Five skeletal-looking characters wearing long coats are standing on this unstable platform that tilts with every move they make, so they try to prevent themselves from falling into the abyss by relocating themselves and keeping balance every time one of them moves. They all go to the edge, pull out fishing rods, and cast them off into the abyss. One of them pulls up a strange box, which is revealed to play music when a key is turned. Eventually, this causes conflict that leads to all but one of them getting knocked over the edge and the last remaining character standing at the opposite side of the box, unable to go over to the opposite side without the risk of sending him and the box over the edge.

It is definitely a dark short, but what I really like about this one is the feel it has. The atmosphere of the whole thing is heavy and rather haunting. There’s no music aside from the box, just ambient creaking sounds in the background and it just adds to the overall eeriness. The story is basic, but it conveys a lot of different themes related to human nature, like curiosity, jealousy, selfishness, isolation, and so forth, and the setting and the title fit, since it basically depicts these characters trying to keep the platform from tilting too far over, and when this object comes in that arouses their interest, it just throws things out of whack. The ending especially gets pretty dark, what with one of them actually knocking the others off just so he can keep the object to himself, but as a consequence of his actions, finds that he can’t use it once he’s the only one left since they’re at opposite sides and another move would cause both of them to fall.

These characters themselves are completely identical. They have no real individuality, no voices, no personalities, and their faces are completely devoid of emotion. All of their thoughts and feelings are expressed through their actions, and they’re delivered in an effective manner, often leaving the viewer uncertain as to what their next move is. The stop motion animation itself is pretty nice as well, since, as mentioned, the characters express through their actions rather than their faces, and the actual tilting effect of the platform is well conveyed.

Dark? Yes. Creepy? Yes. Interesting and worthy of recommendation? Heck yes! I don’t guarantee that you’ll like it, but I’m sure you’ll find it interesting nonetheless.

RATING: *****/***** (5/5)

Technological Threat (1988) Oscar Nominee
Bill Kroyer

I really love this short, not only because it’s an entertaining cartoon that really takes advantage of the medium and some of the things it’s capable of, but also because it was made as an allegory/commentary on how computer animation served as a threat to traditional animators at a time that predated the big CGI boom in the 2000s. And who better to direct it than Bill Kroyer, who worked on the computer graphics for the original Tron? He and his wife Sue started Kroyer Films in 1986, a studio that would combine traditional animation with computer graphics, and this Tex Avery-esque short demonstrates that brilliantly.

The story involves these cartoon dogs/wolves working at an office, with all but one getting replaced by robots every time one of them falters, and it gets to the point where even the boss that is replacing them is replaced by a robot off-screen. The remaining wolf is nervously trying to avoid lagging behind in his work, but once the boss leaves, he takes out the robots in various cartoon fashions, one by one, until he has difficulty with the last robot. The ruckus the two create winds up causing the boss to bust in and nearly push the button, only for the wolf and robot to push the trapdoor underneath the boss, causing the robo-boss to fall through once he presses the button. The wolf and robot look down the hole before the wolf takes the opportunity and knocks the robot down the hole as well.

Personally, I think more hand-drawn TV animation in the 80s should have been like what is shown in this short: stylized, energetic, fast paced, creative and fun to watch. Tex Avery is one of my favorite animators, Golden Age or otherwise, so it’s easy to see how this is sort of a homage to his work, through the gags, the animation, the design and the tone.

The robots and all the backgrounds in the film were encoded, animated, and rendered as drawings on a computer known as the Silicon Graphics IRIS 3120 workstation, according to the end credits, and as dated as the CGI may be, it combines with the traditional animation brilliantly when incorporating hand drawn design onto the computer graphic framework, and the cartoon characters and objects that were done in the traditional 2D style fit equally well with the three dimensional objects in the background. Heck, it’s hard to tell that the backgrounds are in computer graphics!

The synthesizer music is totally 80s, and I still love it because of that. It helps add to the “computerized” feel of the cartoon, and I find it interesting to set quirky 80s synths, heck, 80s music in general, to wild, cartoony Golden-Age influenced animation. If I were allowed to animate music videos for 80s pop/rock, I’d definitely choose some wild Golden Age Animation influences for the style.

Overall, this is a really funny cartoon with a great point that isn’t shoved in your face, although it’s surprising to think this same guy would go on to direct the animated film with an obvious environmental message, Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest. Needless to say, however, I feel this short should be re-released, even if animation technology has really advanced since then, and I feel it should be recognized as the thought-provoking insight to the modern computerized industry, animation or otherwise, that it is.

RATING: *****/***** (5/5)

The Cat Came Back (1988) Oscar Nominee
Cordell Barker

The National Film Board Of Canada is very prominent when it comes to independently animated short films, as several of them are on this DVD. The first one of those on the video, as well as the first one I had seen of their shorts, is “The Cat Came Back,” ranked #32 on animation historian Jerry Beck’s list of the 50 Greatest Cartoons (I currently own a copy of the book,) and for good reason, as it is a hilarious cartoon that demonstrates how wild things can get when you employ the right amount of creativity. And needless to say, I freakin’ love this one. It’s one of my personal favorites.

Directed by Cordell Barker and produced with fellow award-winning Winnipeg animator Richard Condie (who will show up later on in the list,) and based on the song of the same name, it involves the character of Old Mr. Johnson trying to get rid of an obnoxiously destructive little cat, with each attempt leaving him as the one to suffer for it, as he gets increasingly desperate to remove it from the premises to the point of descending into insanity and the cat keeps on returning to destroy more of the house. The highlight for me is probably the railroad scene where he winds up grabbing the cat and taking off on a rail car, probably to abandon it somewhere or at least find a good place to tie it to the tracks, since he keeps running over various women tied to the tracks while operating the thing along the way. But when a cow tied to the tracks suddenly interrupts him, his reaction is priceless: “WHAT THE FFFFF…?!!?”

The ending is morbid animation hilarity and irony at some of its finest. After one last ditch attempt to get rid of the cat winds up killing Old Mr. Johnson and sending him into the air, his ghost returns to torment and taunt the demonic feline, but then his lifeless body falls back down to the earth and crushes the cat, creating nine little cat ghosts that chase after Mr. Johnson’s ghost as he flies off into the distance. It’s pretty obvious that this cat is a curse for Old Mr. Johnson, and that scene just clenches it.

Everything about this short works incredibly, the animation, the music, the color styling, the timing, the energy, the pacing, the humor, and even the actual style of animation itself adds to the deranged feel of the cartoon. It’s just really fun to watch. This is one that I feel deserves multiple re-watches since it’s so fast paced and zany that sometimes you might not always catch everything at once. That, or because it’s so freakin’ enjoyable that it’s hard not to resist its insanity. It’s totally hysterical, totally outlandish, and totally worth watching. Like the cat in the short, it’s possible that you’ll keep coming back to it.

RATING: *****/***** (5/5)

Coming next, a shape-shifting face, a strange Greek tragedy, two sisters' lives, and a scrabble-playing couple.