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.

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