Oscarbation: Celebrating Diversity in the Animated Shorts Ghetto

02/11/2011 8:55 AM |

If Madagascar, a Journey Diary doesnt win this years Academy Award for best animated short Sutton and Stewart will boycott next years ceremony.

  • If Madagascar, a Journey Diary doesn’t win this year’s Academy Award for best animated short Sutton and Stewart will boycott next year’s ceremony.

Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of short films Academy members are traveling to creatively rendered fantasy lands. This week they discover a treasure trove of otherness among the noms for Best Animated Short Film.

So, Ben, I think the Oscar-nominated animated shorts program sports fewer unifying threads than we found among last week’s live action shorts. But that’s not to say they don’t speak to each other. So let me take these in twos, and start by talking about Wall-E. That Pixar feature sported two thematic strains that some critics suggested were in opposition (I disagreed): a fierce environmentalism and a love of cultural ephemera. Those two ideas were embodied by two of our shorts—and, again, placed at odds.

The satiric Let’s Pollute adopts a post-war educational film aesthetic, complete with sonorous and authoritative voice over narration, that finds its comedy in saying the opposite of what it believes: that polluting is our civic duty, and we should all be doing more of it. The short ridicules consumerism and maligns corporations (like last year’s winner, Logorama), while the throwback style subtly suggests that blame lies at the feet of the profligate baby boomer. (In that way, it’s not unlike Mad Men!) Lost Thing, on the other hand, has an affinity for technology that Let’s Pollute doesn’t share—an affection expressed in steampunk design. In it, a teenager (I think?) discovers what looks like a Dickensian boiler with lobster claws on a beach one afternoon, and searches for a proper home for it, eventually locating a misfit-toys sanctuary. This short also embraces a typical children’s story theme: the supremacy of creativity. The protagonist’s friend tries to identify the strange artifact using the scientific method—and he fails. (Rather, it fails.) But Lost Thing boasts an inherent celebration of imagination—just look at its vivid and inventive visual design.

Yeah, Henry, I was pretty into The Lost Thing, not only for its stunning visual style but also for its pro-eccentricity message. Because for all its retrofuturistic production design, Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan’s short also managed to portray a world of stifling, 1984-ish sameness, to the point that the protagonist who adopts the giant tea kettle crustacean visits the “Federal Department of Odds and Ends” for help, only to be handed a stack of forms. In that same spirit of eccentricity, I hope that the Disney-Pixar short Day & Night—which we first saw all those months ago before Toy Story 3—doesn’t win even though, honestly, it might be the most brilliant animated short by a major studio since Duck Amuck 58 years ago. And for all its tongue-in-cheek educational video parody, I thought Let’s Pollute paled in comparison to Logorama‘s pretty fucking intense (and beautifully inventive) anti-corporatism. No, Henry, what I’d like to see win is the one personal project amidst these relatively elaborate, big-budgeted and celebrity-voiced shorts: Bastien Dubois’ Madagascar, a Journey Diary. Like a watercolor version of a Craig Thompson graphic novel with 3D animation, it was possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve seen all year—save perhaps last week’s Confession. What did you think of that sensitive story of an outsider in a foreign land, particularly compared to its similarly-themed cutesy competitor The Gruffalo?

Yeah, Madagascar, a Journey Diary is like a sketchbook brought to life, a travel diary expressed in just about every possible aesthetic and animation style: from the figurative-realist to the impressionistic, from rotoscope and stop motion to pencils and watercolors. Do you think its nomination came from its merits, or because nominators didn’t finish watching their screeners, and just assumed Ben Stiller voiced a lion in it? Its adult-oriented, avant-garde storytelling—hallucinatory, ostensibly ethnographic but not documentary—sharply contrasts to that of The Gruffalo, in which a mouse frightens away would-be predators with scary stories of the title monster. Like Lost Thing, it’s a celebration of imagination—not only do the mouse’s fabulist’s wits save his life, but so does his ability to imagine his enemies eating him when they innocently proposition him for tea. The appeal to children is glaring, particularly the story-within-a-story structure; this, after all, is how kids experience stories. (Stories are told to them.) But what struck me most was that the mouse’s enemies—the fox, the owl, the snake—did not attack, but rather invited him to their homes with promises of treats—just like child predators do with candy! If this were the Caldecott Medal, I’d say the classy, timelessly appealing and glacial Gruffalo was a shoe-in. But do the Academy’s tastes lean more toward the grown-up, even in this oft-infantilized category?

Well, Henry, given Logorama‘s surprise win last year and the recent creation of the unbearably kid-centric Best Animated Feature category, we can only hope the animated short award goes to something a little more ambitious, right? Of course, for all the reasons we’ve cited, that basically means that Madagascar has to win for there to be any justice in the Oscar universe. Perhaps, as you discovered last week, the more revelatory exercise is to map these shorts onto the Best Picture noms (as Slant’s Ed Gonzalez started to do at the end of his predictions). Aside from Gruffalo‘s many affinities with The King’s Speech—for its overwhelming Britishness both in the tone of its storytelling and its visual style, and for Helena Bonham Carter—I suppose Day & Night resembles Black Swan most due to both film’s opposition of light and dark forces, and their overly determined sexual drives: turns out Day and Night are bros lusting after the same bikini-clad babe. And, um, Let’s Pollute is kinda like Inception as both carry their ridiculous premises to absurd, world-destroying ends, and tap into the popular mid-century aesthetic to which you alluded earlier. But which Best Pic nom is Madagascar most similar to, Henry? Or are this year’s top contenders so overwhelmingly white that such analogizing is impossible?

Right, Ben—if anything, Madagascar is the Na Wewe of the bunch, the token black guy, which makes the animated Oscars program more diverse than the rest of the nominees: as Pop Eater pointed out, these are the whitest Oscars in a decade (because Winter’s Bone nabbed the Poverty Voyuerism slot that Precious got last year?) Day & Night, actually, can sorta be read as a commentary about this: you know, with light and dark representing white and black? Think about the way Night is ostracized at the start, instantly clearing whatever party he happens to pop in on, just like this year’s African-American film artists. But by the end Day and Night learn to appreciate their differences and celebrate their commonalities. Maybe this is the nominators’ message to overlooked black filmmakers this year: it gets better. But, Ben—if not now, when? And during Black History Month!?

Yeah, Henry, now that you mention it, all these (save Let’s Pollute) are narratives of difference, short vignettes about encountering a person, group, community or nation that stands in sharp contrast to the main character’s experience. Maybe, as with the live action shorts noms’ reliance on kid characters to elicit immediate emotional attachment, so the animation field tends to position us as outsiders in strange and unusual visual territory, watching a character grapple with similar feelings of displacement and otherness. In that respect they do offer a welcome contrast to the white, Anglo-American bias evident in both the best picture noms and the live action shorts categories. Makes animation looks like the last space left for some sort of diversity in the unadventurous Oscar arena, huh?

One Comment

  • “No, Henry, what I’d like to see win is the one personal project amidst these relatively elaborate, big-budgeted and celebrity-voiced shorts: Bastien Dubois’ Madagascar, a Journey Diary.”

    FYI, “Let’s Pollute” was a completely personal project, created almost single-handedly without a studio and only a tiny volunteer crew. It was self-funded and completed in home offices and garages on a barely 5-figures budget. The filmmaker may not be an outsider, but he’s completely independent.
    The narrator is hardly a celebrity (tho great in this part) – he hosts a drive time show on an LA radio station.
    And note that even Madagascar has a studio connected to it.
    Your characterization of the other three as big budget projects is accurate.