Nullarbor: laconic little road movie on the need to work together

Alister Lockhart, Patrick Sarell, “Nullarbor” (2011)

Across the longest stretch of straight road through the flat desert that is the Nullarbor Plain in southern Australia is raced this animated riff on the classic Aesopian fable “The Tortoise and the Hare”. A brash young man (we’ll call him Bernie) driving through the Outback in his souped-up convertible nearly has an accident with a semi-trailer while distracted by an elderly motorist (we’ll call him Waddy) in his decrepit old motor vehicle. Blaming his near-disaster on Waddy, Bernie seeks to outrace the old codger but ends up encountering one obstacle after another, including one memorable one where his convertible is prevented from crossing a railway line and the endless line of train carriages with the word “HA” painted on their sides passing over the line appears to be laughing at him. Eventually catching up with Waddy, Bernie and the older fellow agree through their facial expressions and gesticulations to a race across the featureless desert. The race though has unexpected consequences for both men and they end up humbled by the harsh physical environment of the desert and the sea.

Old age is pitted against youth, and the slow and steady approach is held up against the speedy (and also hasty) in this very likable animated character study. Ultimately Waddy is not any wiser than Bernie when it comes to taking care of his car or pushing it beyond what it can handle. The two men eventually come to a compromise and an understanding (that likely results in a real and long-lasting friendship) when confronted by the immensity of the Australian landscape and the results of their foolish rivalry.

The film’s humour relies a great deal on slapstick and exaggeration, and there is some crude and even violent humour at Bernie’s expense, but all the humour adds individual flavour to the men’s characters and advance or underline the plot in some way. The problems Bernie encounters illustrate how out of depth he is in the Outback. Sooner or later we know he will need the old man’s help. While Waddy has a more laid-back personality and he and his car have seen and experienced much in this part of Australia, even he cannot always rely on experience and familiarity with the environment and this leads to an oversight on his part that results in his car’s unexpected demise. The destruction however leads to an understanding between the two men and from then on they start to work together to get out of their common predicament. Nature always bats last.

The animation is spare and emphasises the isolation and vastness of the Australian desert and its brilliant colours as day changes into night. The laconic tone of the film – there is no dialogue and the characters communicate with body language – is distinctive and highlights its Australian character. The stereotype of Australian masculinity and men’s behaviour comes under the spotlight in this very concise little film.

Azarkant: a good-looking sci-fi piece short on plot and character

Andrey Klimov, “Azarkant” (2013)

Made as a proof-of-concept piece for a film, “Azarkant” understandably is short on plot and character to the extent that it plays like a generic sci-fi piece in which all the old “hard science” stereotypes appear. A group of cosmonauts on a 10-year voyage in space, their mission being to find planets capable of supporting life, come across an abandoned spaceship and investigate. One of the cosmonauts finds naught but human remains, even an old astronaut’s uniform, suggesting that this spaceship indeed has been floating in space for decades if not hundreds of years. The cosmonaut is ambushed by a robot whose last order is to kill every living being it finds. After a hard fight in which the cosmonaut finally disposes of the robot, he descends to a lower level of the abandoned spaceship where he finds a human body stored in liquid in an incubator.

There’s really no plot to speak of, and the film is remarkable mainly for creating a distinct sinister atmosphere in emphasising shadows, darkness and the barest hints that something dreadful occurred on the abandoned spaceship long ago. The cosmonaut shines his torch onto the surfaces of the spaceship’s interiors to partly reveal skeletal remains and a dead astronaut slumped against a wall. Tension slowly builds through the film as the cosmonaut investigates further, only for him to be suddenly sidelined by the creaky robot. The fight is massive though brief – but the tension itself starts to build again when the cosmonaut resumes his mission and falls through a floor into a deeper level.

The animation is very good, appearing three-dimensional, and seems almost realistic. There is little dialogue and the cosmonaut and robot express their characters through their movements. The cosmonaut seems hesitant, nervous at first, but bravely carries out his mission. The film’s conclusion may be open-ended; it seems that the cosmonaut is approaching a new, more sinister and powerful enemy posing as a human, or the body’s reaction to his presence may be nothing more than reflexive and instinctive.

At least the film looks good and has much visual technical detail, as there is not much more one can say in its favour.

Invaders: a whimsical Christmas SF film provides some sobering food for thought about human social needs

Daniel Prince, “Invaders” (2018)

Playing as a homage and parody of the 1980s film “Batteries Not Included” in which a bunch of tiny extraterrestrial cyborg spaceships save an apartment building from a property development, “Invaders” is a whimsical Christmas short in which three mischievous UFOs explore a house on Christmas Eve and have some amusing adventures and misadventures with various Christmas decorations until one of the UFOs meets Santa Claus. The result of the sudden meeting is rather catastrophic and changes Christmas forever for millions of children around the world – but the naughty cyborgs manage to zip away into space without having to face justice for their misdeeds!

The film proceeds a bit too slowly in its early half and relies on its viewers being familiar with scare stories and conspiracy theories about crop circles and UFO abductions, and 1980s science fiction films dealing with human and alien encounters. Included is a theme about the need for belonging and how that need can be manipulated by others to bully, and lead both bully and victim alike to commit deeds of cruelty, violence and murder. A sobering lesson might be found here about how human societies have treated other human cultures on discovering them for the first time: all too often such contacts result in one attempting to exploit and manipulate the other in order to steal the other’s territory and any wealth that territory contains. Another analogy may be drawn between this film and US drone operators whose targeting and destruction rip apart families, traditions, history and culture in distant lands, at no cost to the operators themselves.

The film is remarkable mainly for its technical achievements in combining animation and computer graphic effects. While it seems slow in getting its plot off the ground, once the story has described its cyber-characters and their relations with one another, the film develops a faster pace and becomes frantic at its climax with quick, sharp shots hinting at a very gory confrontation. For a whimsical short film with a fairly simple plot, “Invaders” does manage to pack in much food for thought.

Royal Madness: a fun cartoon on finding a new purpose in life

Mriganka Bhuyan, Romain Couderette, Eunbyeol Ko, Sean Lewis, Milan Salmona, Wenkai Wang, “Royal Madness” (2019)

Not one of the better offerings from the 2019 Gobelins graduation class but very stylish in its early moments, “Royal Madness” is a fun family-oriented short about losing one’s motivation and zest for life after fulfilling all one’s personal goals and finding new meaning and purpose in relationships with others. Long ago, in a distant kingdom, the king fights and slays all the dragons and monsters menacing his people in splendid stylistic displays of fighting in which the hero monarch and his frightful enemies resemble characters in an Indonesian shadow-puppet play. The king does his job a little too efficiently and before long all the monsters have been chased out of the kingdom. The peace that everyone has hoped for turns out to be the king’s worst enemy: with no enemies left to fight, he lapses into depression. His tiny princess daughter, remembering the former days of glory, cooks up a plan with his retainers to get the king out of his torpor … but the plan could backfire and put all their lives into danger.

The plan is daring if not very original – the retainers put a mechanical monster together – and sure enough, the king is roused out of his fug and goes straight into axe-swinging action. Eventually of course, he has to discover what is actually powering the machine monster before he accidentally kills everyone! The realisation dawns on him that perhaps he has been wasting his time yearning for a past that will never become the present again, and he must find a new purpose, one that will include his daughter.

The animation is very fun and exaggerated, with Disney influences, and the short proceeds very briskly with lots of fast and sudden action. A very creditable job, given that a number of students were involved in its creation, but originality is in short supply here.

Dejeuner sur l’herbe: a character study that skewers intellectual and religious arrogance

Jules Bourges, Jocelyn Charles, Nathan Harbonn Viaud, Pierre Rougemont,”Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (2019)

A droll character study of a scientist called Etienne initially dedicated to pursuing truth and logic, experiencing a crisis of faith after being stood up by a female friend at a beach and seeing an apparent UFO, and refusing to speak to anyone and to carry on as usual with his career for seven years, this film punctures both intellectual arrogance and the arrogance of religious fanaticism alike. By presenting its narrative through Etienne’s viewpoint, the short immediately captures and maintains viewer attention, steadily increasing the tension of the scientist’s descent into a raving religious lunatic until the clanger drops with regard to what the UFO silhouette actually was all those seven years ago.

The animation can be a bit bizarre: characters are drawn rather crudely with oversized heads and tiny mouths, while backgrounds and especially the movements of the sea and waves are done with much care for detail so the lapping waters and the shadows that appear and break up constantly over them look real. The characters themselves though are not very well developed and the animation and narrative rely heavily on the voice actors to make the characters seem more than angst-ridden millennial-born stereotypes.

While the narrative does have holes in parts, and the notion that a scientist or academic could be so easily fooled by a very mundane everyday object in the natural world – which in itself says something about how estranged humanity has become from nature and, by implication, reality – the film deals with its themes and the way in which the narrative develops and unfurls very deftly. One finds oneself sympathising and commiserating with Etienne while also laughing at him.

Protocole Sandwich: a likeable and subversive commentary on conformism, hysteria and denial in Western society

Valerie Bousquie, Josephine Meis, Antoine Vignon, Benjamin Warnitz, “Protocole Sandwich” (2019)

This very likeable and comic-strip-styled animation comes across as a satirical commentary on conformism, mass hysteria and mass denial in Western society. A group of rangers called the Sandwich Protocol are sent to monitor suspicious activity around an antenna tower installation of some sort in a remote desert. The rangers use handheld guns that look like portable electric fans to dispel apparent glitches in their world of reality. They use these guns on an elderly woman and her pet raven: the woman survives (so she’s real enough) but the raven fails the test and is packed away in a special box to be taken back to HQ. During a lunch-break, one of the rangers decides to check something at the antenna itself and discovers something that looks like a sabotage attempt. He is accosted by a strange man who is trying to tell him something and to demonstrate it as well …

Although at the time I saw it, the film had no English-language subtitles, the visual narrative suggests that the rangers themselves are employed to maintain an artificial semblance of reality and the elderly woman and the strange man represent threats to that particular Matrix. The strange man in particular is trying to convince the ranger that he and his fellow rangers have been deceived to believe that they live in the real world when in fact they don’t and the real world actually exists outside the artificial world their masters have created. This means that the raven dies because it is a real creature and not a product of the artificial world of the film. The rangers treat the woman and the stranger as though they are infected by a mysterious and deadly disease, and their desert world as potentially dangerous.

While the stranger ends up being subdued by the rangers in a black box and they leave the box in the charge of the ranger who first encountered the fellow, that ranger seems to have absorbed enough of the stranger’s ranting message that he appears ready to open the box and release the disruptive chaos that will destroy the artificial desert world and reveal the real world. At this point the film ends leaving the audience to speculate what the ranger might do: will he obey and conform just as he has always done or will his curiosity overcome habit?

The animation resembles a Tintin comic strip and the gadgets that the rangers in their special hermetic suits use to combat the dangers of the real world intruding into their careful virtual digital world are very comic. These weapons, the protective clothing the rangers wear and the triangular symbols on their uniforms are hilariously subversive comments on the extreme collective hysteria present in Western society that seeks to stamp out heterodox opinion and information and enforce a cult-like outlook and ideology. Even the food the rangers eat – sandwich triangles – shows the intrusive extent of their brainwashing. The colours are bright and call attention to the unreality of the world that the rangers believe is real. The glitches, representing tears in the virtual world (and suggesting how unstable it is), are beautifully done; in a climactic scene, they turn the animation into a gorgeously psychedelic riot of colour and imagery. As is usual in Gobelins shorts, the voice acting is superb and makes the action seem more real than it actually is.

While the plot will not bear a treatment longer than its six to seven minutes, it already packs considerable information about the kind of dysfunctional society that exists in its world and how freedom and reality are physically so close to humans and yet still so far away.

Dogs: a metaphor for the psychological and other effects of global war and violence

Mohammad Babakoohi, Jakob Bednarz, Benjamin Berrebi, Diego Cristofano, Théo Noble, Karlo Pavicic-Ravlic, Marthinus van Rooyen, “Dogs” (2019)

One of the longer films in the Gobelins 2019 graduation students’ batch of animated shorts eagerly awaited by the French animation school’s fans around the world, “Dogs” is a metaphor for the chaos and psychological effects of war and brutal violence on humans. The action takes place during World War II, about the period of the Warsaw Uprising. A Polish resistance fighter with a rifle (but no taste for killing) escapes a burning city and travels through open countryside in search of a new home. He sees a huge tree with a generous canopy in the middle of an endless meadow and walks towards it but is attacked by a huge savage dog chained to the tree. The man manages to climb into its branches but is stuck while the canine sentry patrols the area around the tree. Day passes into night and while the man is dozing, another dog sneaks into the area and is promptly set upon by the guard dog. During the fight between the two animals, the man is able to sneak down the tree and retrieve his rifle. The guard dog, having killed the other dog, menaces the man who must now decide whether to defend himself by killing the guard dog or be killed …

The beauty of the rural scenes and the cloudy skies, looking rather like oil paintings, belie the chaotic and violent conditions of the world in which this animation is set. The large tree in particular is portrayed as gorgeous and lush, and the guardian dog is vicious, even cannibalistic. Generally the live characters are drawn a bit more crudely than the background scenery but this may be deliberate: war may have dragged living things back to the edge of savagery, though so far it has spared some scenes of natural forest and grasslands. The scenes of burning cities at the beginning and the ending of the film suggest an unending cycle of war, brutality and violence as each new generation entering the world is dragged into this cycle.

The symbolism of the characters can be rather dense and multi-layered. Wooden as it is, the tree is a significant character perhaps representing a bridge between the hellish landscapes of the world and a better world where violence and war are unknown. The savage dog chained to the tree and apparently guarding it may be doing so on behalf of divine masters, so as to prevent ordinary human beings from climbing it and reaching out to the heavens. Significantly the man’s destination turns out to be a burning city – is it the burning city he left at the beginning or is it another city? – to which the entry is a gate over which a three-headed dog (in Greek mythology, this would be Cerberus guarding the entry to the kingdom of the dead) stands as if in triumph. Would the city have been on fire if the tree had not been on fire because of what happens between the man and the guardian dog? Does the city represent the Hell of war, of chaos, of mass prison / concentration camps, and of genocides?

For a film of its length, “Dogs” makes quite deep demands of its audience to ponder how war and brutality ultimately brutalise living beings such as the man and the guardian dog, and whether the man ultimately accepts his destiny to be a killer of humans (at the cost of losing his humanity) if only to defend and save himself.

Out of Range: a study of character transformation through personal crisis and breakdown

Cécile Guillard, Lana Choukroune, Yijia Cao, “Out of Range” (2019)

In the Gobelins animated universe, the most mundane incidents can give rise to major transformations in a person’s life, so much so that we can almost say that person has experienced a kind of death and been born anew. So it is with the sole character in this 4-minute short: Sue, a busy and harassed lawyer, is on her way to meet with a client on a rainy day. The expected meeting forces her to drive on a highway through unfamiliar countryside. The car breaks down and Sue has to pound her way through a forest with only her mobile phone to light her way during the encroaching twilight darkness and a steady rain. Along the way she loses some important papers, the phone falls into a puddle and goes flat, and she is bothered and hampered by annoying insects and a low-lying branch. She falls over and sees her reflection in a puddle – a reflection of her harried workaholic self – and ends up collapsing into an ocean that engulfs and deposits her into a sunny open-meadow paradise of rippling long grass under pale blue skies, the whole scene bearing an uncanny resemblance to country backgrounds in Studio Ghibli movies.

The film’s use of colour emphasises the different worlds Sue crosses through in her mental collapse: reality is portrayed in various harsh textures of grey and dark colours; the post-breakdown world is made up of soft pastel colours. Before her collapse, Sue is ill at ease with the flora and fauna of the forest: she trips over tree roots and mosquitoes and dragonflies bother her to no end. Post-collapse, Sue begins to wonder and marvel at the natural world around her and attempts to hold butterflies in her hands. The most astonishing work in the film though is in the flood that engulfs Sue and sweeps her away into a new world with harsh use of black and white imagery while she fights the rising waters but is later forced to succumb.

While the story is quite simple and is open to many interpretations, it never feels stale due to the strong character creation and build-up with an excellent voice-acting performance from Isabelle Guiard as Sue. You can really feel Sue’s frustration and slight sense of panic as she goes deeper into the forest and gets lost. Sue’s character is well-defined enough and at the same time generic enough – we don’t know her history and background but we can guess at parts of it – for viewers to readily identify with her. This film certainly repays watching.

The Lost Breakfast: amusing animation on how chaos invades and disrupts order and control through daily rituals

Q-rais, “The Lost Breakfast” (2015)

Where some cartoonists treat the weekday early morning ritual of getting up and getting ready to go to work, including the full ritual of cooking and eating breakfast, as a dreary dull and robotic exercise that robs people of their will and humanity, Japanese cartoonist Q-rais sees in it an opportunity to have fun and explore what happens when that ritual and the autopilot mind it requires are disrupted. A man rises at 7 am when his alarm clock rings; throwing open the bed covers, he examines his foot and finds a mysterious puncture wound in the sole with blood on it. He looks outside his bedroom window and sees a black crow perched on a tree branch, looking as if it might know who made that wound but pretending innocence. The man goes off, shaves and deposits his shavings into a tissue which he then neatly folds, does his ablutions and takes his tissue into the kitchen. There, he cooks himself sausages and an egg omelette, makes his toast and tea, and deposits the tea-bag onto the folded tissue. He eats his breakfast while watching the morning weather forecast and news on TV. Having done all that, he gets dressed for work and leaves his home. So far, so good.

The next day, bang on 7 am, the alarm clock rings again, and our man prepares for the day. Again, he finds the mysterious puncture wound on the sole of his foot; again he looks outside his bedroom window but the crow is not waiting on the tree branch. No matter, the man goes about his routine as usual; but once he puts the tea bag on the tissue, suddenly the crow flies through the bedroom window and attacks him on the neck with its beak. The man drops his cup of tea, forcing him to get another cup with another tea bag; but on seeing the first tea bag sitting on the tissue, the man goes into a frenzy repeating parts of his morning ritual over and over, and out of order, until (in a surreal burst of animation) reality fragments and rearranges itself, and the man goes cataleptic.

The animation may be rather crude and simple, and figures and objects are more fluid than they perhaps ought to be, but a playful energy is at work and the very nature of the morning ritual down to its details seems to invite questioning of what it’s all for and why. It appears to be an attack on complacency and on society’s insistence on shutting down people’s individuality and creativity, and on controlling people through their daily rituals. The crow may represent an intrusion of Nature, of the chaos and the freedom (and maybe the fear of the unknown that freedom brings) within that chaos that threaten orderly but mechanised lives. Q-rais obviously had a lot of fun creating this short cartoon and while it might not stand repeated viewings, it certainly is fun to watch the first time round.

Pour la France: emphasising the common humanity of two opposed sides in their potential for mutual understanding and violence

Vincent Chansard, “Pour la France” (2019)

Set in Paris during the so-called La Semaine Sanglante (The Bloody Week) in May 1871, during which time the French Army put down the Paris Commune government and ended two months of experimental socialist government, this film exudes energy and passion for its subject matter, posits a difficult dilemma in which personal ethics clash with one’s loyalties, and emphasises the common humanity of the socialist revolutionaries and the soldiers alike, both in their potential for understanding one another and learning the truth about each other, and in reacting in blind rage and resorting to violence and murder over mutual understanding. The film centres around an army sergeant, Mercier, who treasures a book (Victor Hugo’s “Confessions of a Condemned Man”) given him by a teacher back in 1848, and a revolutionary, Lorraine Mazin, who happens to be that teacher. After the French Army storms the barricades set up by the Paris Commune, Mercier and Mazin are reunited unexpectedly by less than ideal circumstances in which Mazin is one of a number of revolutionaries arrested and condemned to death – and Mercier happens to be part of the shooting squad. Needless to say, teacher and former student recognise each other.

Does Mercier go ahead and obey his general’s orders? If he does, he’ll be a hypocrite and he knows it; if he doesn’t, his own life will be in danger. By reading the Victor Hugo book, Mercier reveals himself to be a thoughtful man already dissatisfied with aspects of mainstream French society of his day, dominated by small, politically and socially conservative, even repressive elites and the powerful Roman Catholic Church. His teacher Mazin may be a revolutionary but she tempers her zeal with reason, telling her fellow revolutionaries not to kill the monks and priests (which they do anyway). When the two meet again, both soundlessly realise the unexpected ethical dilemma and crisis facing Mercier.

The film’s animation is forceful and energetic. Backgrounds featuring scenes of realistic-looking fires are unforgettable. Human characters are roughly and minimally drawn with somewhat exaggerated features, enough to distinguish one person from the next. Characters who lack self-awareness are portrayed with shaded eyes or shut eyes; only significant characters or characters with self-knowledge are portrayed with open eyes. This seems to say something about human nature generally, that in most societies (especially Western societies), most people seem to go about their business on autopilot and are lacking in self-knowledge.

Compared to some other Gobelins short films I have seen, this film does look very good and has a distinct style but the story it tells is not quite as powerful as those of the other films, perhaps because it runs like an excerpt of a much longer imaginary film and the characters are not well developed enough for viewers to care about them.