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.

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