By Perry Chen, Amazing Kids! Movie Reviewer
Last year’s animated shorts are quite the mixed bag. The majority of short films from 2015 are adult-oriented. Two former Oscar nominees, Don Hertzfeldt (World of Tomorrow) and Konstantin Brozit (We Can’t Live Without Cosmos), for the “Best Short Film—Animated” category now have another shot at the Academy Award. Themes and visual styles are diverse for the group, encompassing grief and loss as strong themes in all but Pixar’s Sanjay’s Super Team, which stands out amidst the other nominees consisting of World of Tomorrow, Bear Story, We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, and Prologue.
Pixar, as always, has released its animated short for the year: Sanjay’s Super Team, wherein director Sanjay Patel weaves a fantasy story featuring a younger version of himself for the main character. Young Sanjay’s favorite superhero cartoon comes at an inopportune conflict with his father’s Hindu prayer time. The boy has no interest in meditating and would rather play with his superhero action figure in front of the shrine. However, his figurine catches fire on the shrine’s oil lamp, and he accidentally extinguishes it while trying to blow out the flame.
All of a sudden, Sanjay finds himself in a black stone temple where the demon Ravana materializes from the smoke and begins breaking the statues after stealing the weapons of the Gods. Sanjay relights the lamp with his figurine, summoning the three Gods Vishnu, Durga, and Hanuman from the broken statues. They begin to ring bells to drive the demon back but are unsuccessful in restraining him. Sanjay saves the day by shattering his toy on the temple lamp and returns to his apartment, his toy now clean and unburned with the blessing of Vishnu. The boy eventually compromises with his father by drawing the gods who protected him.
Sanjay’s Super Team tells a story of a religion and culture that is not often represented in Western animation movies. Sanjay Patel explains, “Growing up, there weren’t many Indian characters that looked like me and my family that I could watch and connect with.” Patel hopes that his film will expose kids growing up in America today “so that they can see themselves represented within the mainstream.”
The short ends with real-life pictures of Patel and his father, from childhood to present day. There is no doubt that this film holds various meanings and messages, but Patel still views family as the most important aspect of his short. “Not everyone can relate to superheroes and Hindu deities,” he answered, “but I do think almost everyone can relate to relationships between parent and son.” Patel’s goal as an artist, animator, and first-time director has always been “to help preserve and honor my parents’ culture.”
In the film, Sanjay comes to realize the “myths and stories of [his] father’s religion,” but it was a different story for Patel himself. To read and understand the Hindu stories, Patel commented, “It took me over 30 years.” Vishnu, the supreme Hindu deity of “preservation and balance,” is the being who Patel felt best represented him as a person. “[He] best represents my life as someone who has to try and balance both the cultures of India and America.”
The idea was clever, but little can be understood about the three gods other than the fact that they were able to nullify the demon’s attacks. For such a personal film, it didn’t feel notably personal because of depth being sacrificed for time and relatability. I felt that Pixar’s short and the feature Inside Out both suffered in terms of depth and intensity in order to be more relatable. Unfortunately, Sanjay’s Super Team is based on a culture largely unfamiliar to American viewers and forgoes the nuances of religion and father-son dichotomy in favor of American relatability.
World of Tomorrow begins when a young girl named Emily answers a call from a third-generation clone of her future self, who finds it imperative to speak with her original version sixty days before the impending end of the world. The child is promptly transported 227 years into the future using primitive teleportation technology, where her clone takes her on a tour through a kaleidoscopic neural network containing a mind-bending and melancholy reminiscence of the world to come.
In the simulated events that follow—visions of people fixated on screens of the past seeking meaning in yore; a brain-dead, blinking boy in a stasis tube displayed in an art museum; lunar robots programmed to fear death; Emily III’s ineffable and indiscriminate infatuations; and her inability to cope with the death of her husband—the entirety of the film highlights humanity’s obsession with preservation. As the world nears its end, the wealthiest send their consciousness into space while the corpses of untold millions of unsuccessful time-travelers light up the night sky as they burn in the atmosphere—a dark and dystopian message from director Don Hertzfeldt on our obsession with immortality.
Hertzfeldt’s first foray into digital animation has created a brilliant film of surrealist visuals, complementing his signature “stick-figurine” style. Similar to his absurdist triptych, Everything Will Be OK, I Am So Proud of You, and It’s Such a Beautiful Day, Hertzfeldt combines realistic imagery in stark contrast with minimalist line animation to surprising effect. I think World of Tomorrow has a good chance of winning the Academy Award, given it has already won an Annie Award for best animated short earlier this month.
Next on the list is Bear Story, an elaborate Chilean animation about an old former circus bear who tells the tragic story of his life through an automaton theater. At a street corner in the middle of a strangely empty city, a black bear cub walks up and requests to see the machine. The mechanical theater then opens and shows a story of when an army of circus henchmen storm into the apartment where the bear family happily resides, violently thrashing the animal inhabitants and capturing all but the bear’s wife and child. At the circus tent, the bear is forced to perform at the threat of a bullwhip but seizes a chance to escape and finally reunites with his family.
Overall, Bear Story is a charming tale, but its deeper meaning may be overlooked by most viewers unfamiliar with the history of director Gabriel Osorio’s native Chile. The circus represents the concentration camps of the Pinochet regime, and forcing the animals to perform reflects the tens of thousands imprisoned and tortured. Osorio’s grandfather was exiled as a result, and the bear symbolizes him.
The animation itself is quite charming, but my main criticism is that it dragged on a bit too long. The impact of the plot and theme felt diluted because of its length, and the film would have benefited from a faster pace and the removal of trivial scenes. The soundtrack is also not one of the film’s strongest points; closing my eyes during what were supposed to be some of the most emotional points in the story felt as though I was listening to generic stock music for a television commercial or advertisement. The film’s best musical score happened after the end credits, which felt like wasted potential to me.
Finally, there were two minor animation criticisms that I took note of. When the young bear first noticed the mechanical theater, there were no pinwheels attached on top, but when he ran up to the old bear, they had somehow appeared on top. When the old bear gave him a pinwheel, the cub ran to his father with the pinwheel spinning in the wrong direction. These inconsistencies last for less than a second, so they have little impact upon viewing, but I felt it was worth pointing out.
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos opens with a shot of a gray rocket towering before a snowy cosmonaut training center. There, the story follows two lifelong friends, #1203 and #1204, training towards a shared dream of one day going into space, inspired by a book that they shared since childhood, We Can’t Live Without Cosmos. Eventually, they pass training, and #1203 is sent solo. Shortly afterwards, the screen goes static, and the torn cover of the book drifts into view—implying that the spacecraft depressurized. At this point, things start to get surreal; #1204 curls into a fetal position inside his suit, stricken with grief. Sawing the helmet off yields only an empty suit and a photograph of the two friends. Nothing remains of either cosmonaut save for the human-shaped hole in the ceiling where the night shines through. A vision of #1204 floats in space, and a cosmonaut grabs him by the arm.
I expected anyone’s first question about the film to be “Why can’t we live without cosmos?” Surprisingly, that was not the case! Director Konstantin Brozit explained over an interview, “Till now nobody asked me something about the title.” Brozit was making his 15-minute-long film about four or five years ago, but he can say for sure that the title was there from the very beginning. “I liked it because as I thought, it was obvious that the real sense of this title is not about cosmos at all.”
When I asked him about whether or not he was inspired by something to make this short, he responded, “There was no inspiration. I don’t like this word. It reminds me about childish wish to make something creative.” For Brozit, his films are created from inner questions; as he put, “[a] question of some feeling which was born inside of me and which doesn’t give the rest to a soul.” Brozit reveals, “My film is not about friendship as someone can think from the first look. It is about loneliness.”
What was the meaning behind the perplexing conclusion? Many have probably asked him before, but when asked, he always says, “Just think yourself—what you personally prefer to think—this will be the answer.” He remarks, “I don’t like…to give to the audience my straight personal explanation of the ending.” Even a director has to keep some secrets about his films, but the secret of who will win the Oscar will soon be revealed. We Can’t Live Without Cosmos definitely has a strong chance.
Finally, we have Prologue. The film begins with a scene showing a multitude of worn-down pencils and a towering stack as the product of this graphite, hand-drawn film. The film then depicts two Athenian warriors watching two Spartans across a windy field. The duos face off and engage in brutal, slow-motion combat with spear, axe, bow, and sword. All four end up slaughtered, the killing blow being a sword through the groin of the fully nude Athenian, and through all of this a young girl watching runs away heartbroken.
The animation is superbly done in a hand-drawn sketch style and incredibly realistic. Also, the story is incredibly unique as no person in history has ever made a film about senseless violence, blood-splattered gore, and the horrors of war. Just kidding. Besides the art and cinematography, Prologue boasts no redeeming qualities whatsoever; and it’s a shame that director Richard Williams spent years of his life for this. Prologue is clearly a prologue for a larger work, in this case a planned feature film based on Lysistrata, but even then the mood of this short would mix with the main film like oil and water. The classical, Athenian play was clearly a mature comedy; Prologue would be more suitable as its namesake for a dark, gritty story instead. Of all the nominees this year, this one is my least favorite.
This year’s prediction is one of the toughest yet, but I have the feeling it’s between World of Tomorrow and Sanjay’s Super Team. I personally liked World of Tomorrow the best, and many share my opinion. So far, World of Tomorrow has snatched up many important awards, including Best Short Subject at the Annies, which I had the pleasure of attending. Don Hertzfeldt, being two-time Oscar nominee, has the advantage over rookie director Sanjay Patel. However, he doesn’t have the backing of Patel voters loyal to Disney and Pixar Studios. On top of that, people in the film industry, media, and beyond have recently been pushing for diverse cultural stories. Also in Patel’s favor is that some may shy away from “disturbing” or confusing concepts that World of Tomorrow is chock full of. Equally so, certain Academy voters may be put off by the religious nature of Sanjay’s Super Team. These two films are very much different in both visual style and message. One emphasizes family values and compromise while another delves into human nature and existentialism. If I had to make one final choice, I say World of Tomorrow based on statistics alone.
Copyright 2016 by Perry S. Chen. All rights reserved.
About Perry Chen:
Perry S. Chen is a 15-year-old award-winning child critic, artist, animator, TEDx speaker, and entertainment personality, currently in 10th grade from San Diego. He started reviewing movies at age 8 in 3rd grade using a kid-friendly starfish rating system, and has been featured in CBS, NPR, NBC, CNN, CCTV (China Central Television), Variety, Animation Magazine, The Young Icons, The Guardian, The China Press, etc. He was a presenter at the 2010 Annie Awards for Animation, and has written movie reviews for Animation World Network, San Diego Union Tribune, Amazing Kids! Magazine, and his own Perry’s Previews blog, as well as restaurant reviews for DiningOut San Diego Magazine and San Diego Entertainer. He won the San Diego Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards in 2010, 2011, and 2013 for his movie and restaurant reviews. Connect with him on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/perryspreviewsfan