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Arts & Life

Another Disappointing Year For The Oscar-Nominated Shorts

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LincolnBlues/Flickr

One might think of the short films nominated for Oscars as work by aspiring filmmakers who manage to cobble together enough money to make their films. That’s no longer the case. Dear Basketball is directed and animated by Glen Keane, an animation supervisor on many Disney projects, among other films. The music is by John Williams, one of the most honored Hollywood composers, and the short piece is created and narrated by Kobe Bryant, the very great and very rich now-retired basketball star for the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s his farewell note to the sport he so loves.

Judging from the lives of many former athletes, retirement is not easy. At something like 35, their careers are over, and they know no other life. The film looks pretty good – pencil drawings of Bryant always as a young boy mingled with him as the great athlete. But the piece avoids anything real that Bryant may feel by hugging all the worst clichés about things like the inner child. It also smacks of self-pity and Bryant’s infatuation with himself. Oddly, it’s the best-looking film in the bunch, although it shares with the others an unfortunate desire to look realistic.

With the extraordinary development of digital animation tools, it seems that most animation has grown addicted to slavish realism. One of the great joys of animation has been the release from actuality. Animators can leap into fantasies about how the world looks; they can change the basic physics of the universe. Animation can be the escape from literal actuality into metaphor.

In a French animation, Garden Party, a frog gets into a house and rummages through the foods left on a table after a party – it hops among oyster shells and caviar, and then squeezes into a cookie jar. A few lizards join the scene. The film looks like an exercise in digital effects – reflected light, light coming through windows. It’s expertly done; the effects look very real – but so what. The film has no depth or complexity of understanding, no warmth – not even a chill. It’s like calisthenics, and the closing moralistic irony about greed doesn’t help.

What none of these films have is even a touch of wit. Lou, made by Disney/Pixar is about a schoolyard bully, and it eventually shows that Lou became a bully because his favorite toy was taken from him. Lord love a duck. Chuck Jones or Ted Avery have a dog chase a cat – and everyone gets the point about bullies without being read a sermon or a half-baked psychological revelation on the situation. The film condescends to children by pushing cloying moralism’s at them and denying them the excitement of getting the point on their own.

Everyone knows that Sylvester is the bully chasing Tweety Bird. Chuck Jones, who directed the very best Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons, often said that he never made a movie for children. He refused to preach, but if you want serious insight into the nature of human beings and how to deal with people different from yourself, look at the Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd classics What’s Opera, Doc, Duck Amuck – or look at One Froggy Evening.

Another French animation, called Negative Space, at least avoids making characters look too humanoid; there’s some character in the design, and the film comes with a touch of irony at the end. A son tells about his father teaching him how to pack suitcases efficiently, but the narrator sounds like the voice of doom, and the last packing rather pointlessly has to do with packing the father in his casket.

Finally, Revolting Rhymes, the longest in the bunch by more than 15 minutes, reworks some fairy tales – Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, The Three Little Pigs. The movie plods along like a dirge; the retellings are neither funny nor instructive.

These films need writers and they need to free themselves from their worship of their tools. I know there are better animations around.

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