Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Poor Little Animated Shorts: Children's Edition

Title: The Wrong Trousers (1993)
Director: Nick Park
Time: 30 minutes
Availability: In the “Wallace and Gromit” box set.
The second short in the “Wallace and Gromit” series (the others being “A Grand Day Out” and “A Close Shave”), “The Wrong Trousers” is arguably the best. Wallace, an eccentric inventor, has purchased a pair of robotic trousers to automate walks for his dog, Gromit. The unwanted gift strains the relationship between pet and master and things only get worse when Wallace takes on an enigmatic boarder, a penguin who may be planning a daring diamond heist. The art is notable for its exquisitely crafted claymation work, years in the making for a mere 30 minutes worth of footage but absolutely packed with in-jokes, atmosphere and personality.

Aardman Animations have been responsible for almost all the claymation out of Britain for the past 30 years. Nick Park is their star athlete, easily outpacing his colleagues and collaborators as the face of English stop-motion on the success of his Wallace and Gromit trilogy and “Chicken Run.” Despite ventures into feature filmmaking his best work is still to be found in his original trio of W&G shorts. “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave” both won academy awards while “A Grand Day Out” lost to “Creature Comforts,” which was directed by none other than Nick Park. Despite the short running time he maintains a ludicrously high volume of inventive gags, stirring action and character development. Even those who normally pass on British humor are likely to find the duo irresistible. A fourth episode is currently in production now, titled “A Matter of Loaf and Death” and due out later this year.

Title: The Old Mill (1937)
Director: Wilfred Jackson
Time: 9 minutes
Availability: You can find it on YouTube, but be mindful that Disney takes its copyright issues seriously.
An owl, a pair of pigeons, a colony of bats and an assortment of other animals spend the night in an abandoned windmill while a raging storm threatens their harmony. The gale bring the aging wooden gears to life, but the crumbled stone and rotting shingles may not survive the night, to say nothing of the innocent creatures within. Eschewing marketable anthropomorphized characters and well-worn fairy tale plots, this gorgeous Disney short predates the company’s growth into a soulless behemoth and feels fresh and honest even after 70 years.

Disney’s Silly Symphonies (rivals of Warner Brothers Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies) include some of the best animated music videos from the first half of the 20th century and are fondly remembered by viewers of several generations. Of the 75 symphonies, there are better known (“The Skeleton Dance”), more influential (the debut of the three-color Technicolor process in “Flowers and Trees”) and more acclaimed (“The Band Concert”), but none that I’ve seen surpassed “The Old Mill” for my money. The bare-bones story is naively unmarketable by today’s standards, but the realistic presentation, full colors and complicated weather effects showed a technical mastery that looked forward to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” that same year.

Title: The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (1965)
Director: Chuck Jones
Time: 10 minutes
Availability: On YouTube here.
Though exorbitant costs kept me away from the recent adaptation of Edwin Abbott Abbott’s “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions,” one can thankfully still resort to this wonderful Norton Juster adaptation. Amongst its many references to the earlier work is a winking play on words which changes the meaning of romance from an adventure to a relationship, in this case a major crush on the part of a line for a “perfectly curved” dot. The only problem is that the circle would much rather live the wild life with a crazy jumble of squiggles than hang out with the straight and narrow. It isn’t until the line hones his skills as the basis for beautifully graphed equations that he can win the girl (eloquently punned in the film’s famed final line).

A cult treasure amongst math nerds, “The Dot and the Line” deserves a wider audience amongst children, not because of its after-school special lesson, but because of its implicit celebration of two things most kids hate: math and abstract art. This short diverges from Chuck Jones’s iconic imagery, yet the humor and wordplay and still unmistakably present as is his unremitting resolve to optimize even the most absurd premise. Robert Morley provides the somewhat overly prim narration.


Mad Dog said...

Speaking of Disney animated shorts, is their recent one about the matchstick girl going to be featured?

Molly said...

I agree that The Wrong Trousers is the best of the Wallace and Gromit films (including Curse of the Were-Rabbit). Its story is more complex and its production values more sleek than the charming A Grand Day Out, but its cozy, personal aesthetic is never overwhelmed by its action sequences or by the startling spectacles of the later films (which are still rather good).

FilmWalrus said...

Mad Dog,

I haven't yet seen that one yet, but maybe I will check out the oscar short dvd of it. I just can't work up the nerve to rent the platinum edition of "The Little Mermaid." I'm assuming you recommend it?

Exactly Why,

I am jealous of your run-in with the World Horror Convention. I'll have to keep an eye out for Doctor Infierno (the movie).

Mad Dog said...

Well, far be it from me to recommend something outside the strictest bounds of morality, but perhaps a certain video streaming site has it?

And yeah, I saw it and was surprised by the fact that when they aren't sinking trillions of dollars and dozens of musical numbers into their animation, it can still impress.