2015 Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films: Best to Not-Best

Bear Story!

Each year since 2009 my wife and I have paid a visit to Keystone Art Cinema, the only dedicated art-film theater in Indianapolis, to view the big-screen release of the Academy Award nominees for Best Live-Action Short Film and Best Animated Short Film. Results vary each time and aren’t always for all audiences, but we appreciate this opportunity to sample such works and see what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences deemed worthy of celebrating, whether we agree with their collective opinions or not. Usually we do both sets as a one-day double-feature date, but a non-negotiable scheduling conflict cut into our window of opportunity. We saw the live-action shorts two weekends ago, and caught the animated shorts this past weekend.

Presented below are my rankings of this year’s five Animated Short Film nominees, in order from “So Many Feels” to “Had Drawbacks”. They’re probably available on iTunes or other streaming services, but I honestly haven’t checked. Links are provided to official sites where available if you’re interested in more info. Enjoy where possible!

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“Inside Out”: Oceans of Commotions from Notions of Emotions

Inside Out!

Two women on the go and an unforgiving canyon. It’s just like Thelma and Louise except this time men aren’t to blame for everything and they didn’t cut off the ending.

Pixar has wowed us before, but this is the first time they’ve adapted one of my wish-list items into a major motion picture. With their new spectacle Inside Out I finally got that Parks and Rec/The Office crossover I’ve been imagining in my head for years. Amy Poehler’s Joy basically is Leslie Knope — she has the unlimited zest, the relentless positivism, the stubborn refusal to accept dissent, and the disturbing attachment to large binders. Phyllis Smith’s Sadness and Mindy Kaling’s Disgust represent for an animated Dunder Mifflin exactly as they would in live-action, but without the guys around to get in their way. It’s probably for the best that NBC didn’t force the showrunners into a crossover years ago, and instead let it happen organically when the time was right. I’m just thrilled that it came to pass in my lifetime.

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Yes, There’s a Scene After the “Monsters University” End Credits

Monsters University, Disney, PixarHonest truth as of this evening: Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Monsters University “the Best Film of the Year”! So far. Yes, the year is young. Proclamation subject to change without notice, possibly during Oscar preseason.

Seriously, though: looking back at my last several summer action blockbuster spectacular experiences, this Disney/Pixar reboot of Revenge of the Nerds requires less forgiveness of plot holes; boasts characterization truer to the original cast; doesn’t overwrite wide-scale urban destruction with perfunctory offscreen-slapdash-reconstruction happy ending; refuses to play bait-and-switch with its antagonists; and, like Toy Story 3, is a surprisingly top-notch sequel with its own topic to explore rather than acting as a hollow, superfluous extension of the original.

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2012 Road Trip Photos #37: Tow Mater Welcomes You to Route 66

The scenery east of the Little House Museum remained steady and unremarkable until we navigated our way to famous Historic Route 66. Originally connecting Chicago and Los Angeles, the formerly cross-country thoroughfare that inspired a TV show, a Pixar film, and innumerable road trips was ignobly decommissioned decades ago when it found itself superseded by the newfangled interstate system. Many sections were downgraded, renamed, or scuppered altogether. A few segments across America retain the original name, shape, and celebrity, including a few miles’ worth in southwest Kansas, leading east into Missouri.

Historic Route 66 road sign

Some locals still cherish the heritage of Route 66 and cheerfully commemorate its legacy and impact on pop culture. Galena, for example, is a rare small town that can justify boasting about a life-sized stand-in for the one and only Tow Mater.

Tow Mater, Route 66, Galena, Kansas

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Questioning My Reality after Preferring “Madagascar 3” to “Brave”

After seeing Brave and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted within a week of each other, I was surprised to conclude that this is the second year in a row in which I’ve liked a DreamWorks CG-animated film more than a same-year Pixar release. Last year’s narrow victory of Kung Fu Panda 2 over Cars 2 was…well, a paltry competition, but still.

For the most part, Brave was still very good for what it was. I could appreciate the uneasy conflict between a mother and daughter who fail to see eye-to-eye, but who eventually learn to accept each other’s differences through a series of intense situations. However, swap their gender and you find yourself with the same uneasy conflict last seen in How to Train Your Dragon. Whereas the latter was more epic in scope, Brave by comparison was a more intimate struggle whose own four-legged antagonist was a bit smaller. Both were also set in long-ago Scotland, had characters with limbs amputated by beasts, and beefed up their supporting cast with a healthy dose of Craig Ferguson. I didn’t want to keep comparing the two so unfairly, especially since Dragon is presently my favorite DreamWorks CG film, but my mind wouldn’t stop.

Madagascar 3, on the other hand, benefited tremendously from how forgettable I found the first two. I remember the main and supporting characters, and a few flourishes from the original that are referenced in this one for effective callback resonance, but not my actual overall opinions of them. It was a pleasure hearing Ben Stiller and Chris Rock riffing to their heart’s content for a general audience. I was practically giddy from overdosing on the manic wit that propels the film forward at breakneck speed. I’m enamored of the moral of the story, that nostalgia can prevent us from seeing how confining our former boundaries were until we confront them and realize the power of moving on to wider stages. I also enjoyed turns from incoming performers such as Bryan Cranston (a Siberian tiger with a tragic story), Martin Short (a fawning, barely talented sealion), Academy Award Winner Frances McDormand (an unstoppable French animal control specialist on a vendetta), and X-Men 3‘s Juggernaut as a miniature circus dog with a ‘tude. This may also feature the best performance by a mute circus bear in cinema history. I entered the theater expecting no effect on my apathy; I exited with a smile on my face and the very few lyrics to “Afro Circus” stuck on Repeat in my head.

I’m having a very hard time reconciling these two opinions. In pondering my blasphemous imaginings of a world where Pixar is no longer the automatic king of everything, I wondered if any statistical comparisons have been drawn between the two. As luck would have it, such comparisons have been done and overdone. I decided to compile figures anyway for my own amusement, chronologically for all CG releases from each of the two companies — not of American box office grosses, but of ratings on the world-famous Tomatometer™.

Those results to date:

1995: No Dreamworks CG department to speak of; 100% for Toy Story, the grand pioneer of the medium.

1996-1997: No entrants. Each studio lay dormant, making plans and revving up their engines.

1998: 95% for Antz; 92% for A Bug’s Life. This flawed comparison is a prime example of how the Tomatometer fresh/rotten binary system lacks nuance. I didn’t hate Antz, but I’d be surprised if anyone favors or even remembers it to this day. I’m also mystified as to why Pixar hasn’t allowed an encore yet for Flik and friends. Were their merchandise sales really that anemic?

1999: No Dreamworks CG releases; a rightful 100% for Toy Story 2.

2000: No entrants. Remember when each studio used to craft one film at a time, no matter how long it took? Pixar has obviously expanded their staff and resources to sufficient capacity to maintain a steady pace of one new film per year as productions overlap. Meanwhile at DreamWorks, their WikiPedia page lists an alleged, ambitious overkill slate of twenty-two projects in various stages between ideation and completion. That either speaks to their success, foreshadows an animation glut in our future, or includes direct-to-DVD fodder to be distributed by DreamWorks but created by other, smaller animation houses.

2001: 89% for Shrek; 95% for Monsters Inc. I enjoyed the cleverness and performances in Shrek up until the exact moment where the plot pivoted because of a Three’s Company-style stupid misunderstanding because of ill-timed eavesdropping. Those are an automatic fail in my book. While that meant a forfeit in favor of Pixar, I thought some of Billy Crystal’s ad-libs weren’t exactly among his best. Given the choice, I’d rather watch clips of his past Oscar-hosting gigs.

2002: the last mutual skip year. Going forward, the mission statement for both studios was to crank out new movies every year or die trying.

2003: Still no new Dreamworks CG releases; 98% for Finding Nemo, the greatest Ellen DeGeneres film of all time.

2004: 89% for Shrek 2, which I thought was the best of the series; 36% for Shark Tale, which seemed like a case of casting famous faces first, then writing a script around them later. DreamWorks thankfully took notes from Pixar’s methodology and has relied on this poor creative formula a lot less than they used to. Meanwhile, The Incredibles, my all-time favorite Pixar film sans Woody or Buzz, impressed with 97%.

2005: 55% for the first Madagascar, whatever it was like. I do remember it looking crudely drawn. Cars was originally scheduled this year but delayed to 2006 for any number of rumored reasons, from quality control to internecine corporate shenanigans.

2006: 74% for Over the Hedge, shrewder and funnier than I expected in its barbed consumer-culture satire. 74% for Cars, which I thought was just fine. I suspect some negative reactions were Mater’s fault. He didn’t bother me. I know people here in Indiana not too different from him.

2007: 41% for Shrek the Third (no argument here); 51% for Bee Movie, proof that not everyone loved Seinfeld as much as some entertainment magazines did; and 96% for Ratatouille, Pixar’s first attempt at something besides an epic adventure, and a blessedly successful one at that.

2008: 88% for Kung Fu Panda, which I tried to tell everyone around me was seriously awesome (especially in super-sized all-powerful IMAX), but no one would listen to me because of either Jack Black or disdain for kung-fu flicks. Their loss. The 64% for Madagasacar 2: Something Something Animals improved on its predecessor in ways I no longer recall. 96% for WALL-E, which I really liked but didn’t fall head-over-heels in love with, as some of my peers did. Can’t really put my finger on why. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing about environmental lectures.

2009: 72% for Monsters vs. Aliens, which was quite a nifty League of Extraordinary B-Movie Creatures; 98% for Up, which made me bawl before the end of the first half-hour, but knocked itself down from an A+ to a mere A because of doggie biplanes. No one steals Snoopy’s shtick and gets away with it, not even Pixar.

2010: 98% for How to Train Your Dragon (thank you, critics, for validating me); 58% for Shrek Forever After (which I avoided after hating the third one); 73% for Megamind (not a fan of Will Ferrell movies, but was pretty happy with this despite sad reliance on AC/DC); and naturally 99% for Toy Story 3, weakest of the trilogy but hardly a weak film.

2011: 81% for Kung Fu Panda 2, okay but not nearly as seriously awesome as the first; 83% for Puss in Boots, which I also avoided because of Shrek the Third (my loss, perhaps); and 38% for Cars 2, certifiably the Worst Pixar Film of All Time. If you think of it as three back-to-back episodes of Cars: the TV Series, it’s really not so disappointing in those terms. If this had been released direct-to-DVD, it might have attained the same kind of regard that Disney fans hold for The Lion King 1½. Again I blame the Mater-haters.

2012: As of this evening, 76% apiece for Madagascar 3 and for Brave. It’s a tie!

On average, the DreamWorks track record has improved in the years since its Shark Tale nadir. Pixar isn’t exactly churning out third-rate filler just to pad the Disney release schedule, but no longer seems bulletproof, either. I look forward to future works from both, as long as none of them is Flik vs. Antz, which I would view as a sign of creative bankruptcy, unless Flik wins.

Additional notes:

1. List does not include Aardman productions released through DreamWorks, as much as I recommend the majority of them.

2. List excludes non-Pixar Disney CG fare because it is presumed inferior due to lack of Pixar authorship, with the exception of Tangled. The jury can’t wait to deliberate on Wreck-It Ralph.

3. List obviously excludes productions from other well-known studios such as Blue Sky and Robert Zemeckis’ ImageMovers because my free time for late-night writing is not unlimited. Their inclusion would also distract from the whole two-sided rap-rivalry vibe of the competition.

4. I lament that the list excludes traditional animated films, just as movie executives do nowadays. Recent works in this medium have been flawed in ways that could not necessarily be blamed on said medium (e.g. mediocre stories; unfunny jokes; reliance on star power over creativity); and yet, when those flaws hurt them at the box office, the medium was blamed and practically scuttled as a whole in America. This, in my mind, is an even greater shame than Shark Tale.

Yes, There’s a Scene After the “Brave” End Credits

My wife and I are stubborn about receiving our money’s worth for our movie tickets. We really don’t mind sitting through the end credits, skimming for names we recognize, trying to spot buried gags, and waiting for the occasional Easter egg to be hatched. I like seeing if any of the storyboard artists are names I recognize from their previous career in comic books (this is extremely common), or if any bands I like contributed music (not so common). If our patience is rewarded with an extra scene, it’s a super-special bonus.

My son and I attended a showing of Brave this evening in a theater packed with several dozen other patrons, most of whom seemed to know each other, probably a group outing. (Frankly, I can’t remember the last time I was surrounded by so many teenage girls.) And yet, by the time the final minute of the final reel arrived, we two were the last ones around to smile at the capper.

For those who deserted early and missed out because you were dying for a bathroom or you have an intense fear of scrolling words, you can rest assured that, for better or for worse, it did not include any of the following:

* A middle-aged Merida and her husband playing with their children, Hamish and Lamish

* Several outtakes in which Merida keeps slipping into a Valley Girl accent

* An ad for a proposed Disneyland Glasgow resort

* Eight more versions of the Monsters University trailer, including one badly aged Sammy Davis Jr. impression

* 17-minute bagpipe solo

* Merida and Katniss Everdeen gabbing over tea and mocking Hawkeye’s alleged archery training

* A new “Sam and Max, Freelance Police” short by Brave co-director Steve Purcell (Man, if only. *sigh*)

* A cartoon Mel Gibson yelling about freedom, right before being beheaded

* A word from John Ratzenberger about the Will Rogers Institute

* A single male character who’s not a boor, a dolt, a wild animal, or a ringer for Huey, Dewey, and Louie

* A round of applause for How to Train Your Dragon, a better, more epic fantasy about ye olde Scotland

If you haven’t seen the film, a description of the epilogue will make no sense to you. For those who fled and really want to know without seeing it a second time…

[insert space for courtesy mild spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]

…suffice it to say that goods previously purchased near the film’s halfway point are finally delivered in one overflowing wagon. It’s nice to know a deal’s a deal, no matter how monkey’s-pawed it was.

Pixar to Spend Billions Making 350 Versions of “Monsters U”, One for Each Billy Crystal Ad-Lib

Prefacing Pixar’s Brave this weekend in theaters were four different versions of a new teaser for their next adventure, Monsters University. Moviegoers had the chance to witness one of four versions, each with Billy Crystal voicing a different non sequitur as our hero Mike Wazowski is awakened in the middle of the night so that his roommate Sully can prank him, because of the high hilarity to be found in college-dorm bullying.

The most frequently viewed version according to YouTube stats involves a line about a pony, but this one’s my favorite of the four:

Monsters University is rumored to be a prequel to Pixar’s classic monster movie Monsters Inc. While not confirming that rumor directly with any real detail, Pixar reps insist, “Monsters Inc. fans will be very pleased, especially with the last eight minutes.” Speculation abounds as to whether or not this film will at long last answer the important questions that have lingered over the last eleven years: How was the Monsters’ universe created? Which of the million-plus bedroom doors in the original had a preschool-age Space Jockey standing behind it? Did Boo’s parents freak out while she was missing all those days? Did Mike Wazowski’s race evolve from expired olives?

Monsters University is scheduled for American theatrical release on June 21, 2013. In addition to Crystal, returning voices include John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, former Muppeteer Frank Oz, and Mandatory John Ratzenberger. Newcomers will include Senor Chang from Community, Freddy Rumsen from Mad Men, and animation veteran Robert Underdunk Terwilliger.

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