The world of animation is not simply for children, thank goodness


Animated short “Revolting Rhymes” offers a fresh take on “Little Red Riding Hood.”

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Did you know that, within the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, the same branch determines the nominees for Best Animated Short and Best Animated Feature (as well as Best Live-Action Short)? I ask that question rhetorically because it seems as if, even with the shift in focus over the last 10-12 years that has insured audiences have been more exposed to the entire Shorts Program, we still tend to view these categories as if they are somehow outside the established filmmaking system. There is something precious and esoteric about animation in general, rendering it less important as a means of capturing and detailing the complexity of the adult human experience.

Peruse the titles nominated for Animated Feature at this year’s Academy Awards and you will find the requisite Hollywood fare – “Ferdinand,” “The Boss Baby,” and “Coco” – but the inclusion of “Loving Vincent” and “The Breadwinner” speak to a rising faction within the animation community to expand their vision a bit. Critically speaking, I have tuned out on the genre of animation. There have been few exceptions – think “Beauty and the Beast,” “Up,” and “Toy Story 3” (animated features that also garnered Best Picture nominations) and “Waltz with Bashir” (which snagged a Best Foreign Language Film nom without earning an animated feature nod) – that truly explored a degree of complex emotionality and artfulness without resorting to lowest common denominator elements.

Thankfully, this year with “Loving Vincent” and “The Breadwinner” in the mix, my long-time aversion has given way to a sense of hopefulness that the genre might rise above its talking animals and inanimate objects fixation to present more grounded human narratives with surreal beauty. When preparing to attend animate feature screenings, I find myself having a familiar exchange with my wife, who also dismisses the genre, considering them mere “kids” movies, a subset of features we shouldn’t have to worry about now that our children are almost grown.

The history of the Animated Shorts category, which most of us might be unfamiliar with, speaks even more directly to such assumptions. From 1932 to 1970, the category was known as “Short Subjects, Cartoons” before a brief renaming (from 1971 to 1973) as “Short Subjects, Animated Films.” During these phases, Walt Disney earned 12 Academy Awards (of his 22 total honors from the Motion Picture Academy), which includes a distinctive run of 10 out of the first 11 awards in the category. Also in the mix, MGM’s celebrated “Tom and Jerry” animated series claimed 7 Oscars out of 13 nominations.

The 2018 Best Animated Shorts nominees, which will screen at The Neon in program packages along with the Live-Action and Documentary nominees, runs the gamut – from the expected Pixar entry (“Lou” from Dave Mullins and Dana Murray about a sweet-natured spirit that haunts a school playground’s lost and found and converts a schoolyard bully into a selfless hero) to “Garden Party,” a fabulous dark fantasy (from the French team of Victor Caire and Gabriel Grapperon) that reveals found footage of a raucous party straight out a lost adventure from “The Hangover” franchise from the perspective of a group of frogs surveying the scene.

It is that skewed point of view that dominates the more engaging selections in the Animated Shorts category. Another French representative – Max Porter and Ru Kuwahta’s “Negative Space” – reveals a surprising poignancy in the relationship between a father and son. Growing up with a father who traveled constantly for work, the young boy connects with his largely absent father through the art of packing. The father taught the importance of using every bit of available space and it is a lesson that follows the son into adulthood.

The UK team of Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer present “Revolting Rhymes,” enlisting the silky voice talent of no less than Dominic West as The Wolf in an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s re-imaged merging of “Snow White” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” The only thing worth noting here is to remember that villains are always heroes in their own versions of the story. That lesson could also explain the reception of “Dear Basketball” from Glen Keane and Kobe Bryant. The short is a visualization of a poem NBA great Bryant penned as a letter in the “Player’s Tribune” on November 29, 2015 as his retirement announcement. Keane provides the animation accompanied by a score from John Williams, but the fortunes of “Dear Basketball” will rise and fall based on how viewers feel about Bryant, who has drawn the ire of the #MeToo movement.

The Animated Shorts package offered at The Neon will include three additional shorts (“Lost Property Office,” “Weeds,” and “Achoo”) to boost the program up to feature length, along with separate programs for Live-Action and Documentary shorts. If those categories live up to the promise of the Animated nominees, then hopefully, one day soon, shorts just might compete for theatrical release space in regional arthouses and multiplexes.

For more information about the Academy Awards Nominated Shorts presentation, visit www.neonmovies.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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