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

C├ęcile 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.

Blind Eye: a satirical poke in the eye at religious fanaticism, blind faith and priestly control

Bruno Cohen, Germaine Colajanni, Rohan Deshchougule, Ronit Kelkar, Isabella Littger de Pinho, Diego Porral, Yujia Wang, “Blind Eye” (2019)

After seeing Muhammad Houhou’s 2018-released short”Ostrich Politic”, I wasn’t expecting to see another animated short illustrating the famous Plato’s Cave allegory from students of the renowned Gobelins School of animation in Paris but a group of animators has done just that in the second year running in the school’s new 2019-released batch of shorts. “Blind Eye” tells the story of a community of worshippers sacrificing to their god The Almighty Eye in a complex ritual conducted by their priests. A small toddler starts munching on one of the sacrificial offerings and the offended community and priests yield him up to the giant birds to take him to the god. Just as one of the birds snatches up the child, the little boy’s sister races to the altar and tries to save him but both children are borne away by the bird … to an upper paradise world where the birds turn out to be part of the local wildlife and previous sacrificial victims, one of whom was known to the children in the past, lounge about on the grass and worship the sun.

The film is open-ended so it can be the subject of various interpretations: the children are stunned to learn the true nature of The Almighty Eye; the people in the upper world might be preparing the siblings for another sacrifice, one they won’t so easily escape; or they really have died after all and their spirits have gone to a completely different dimension. The film is also a satirical commentary on how blind faith and religious dogma jealously controlled by a priestly elite combine to keep a community ignorant of the truth.

The animation style is cartoony but zippy enough to keep a surprisingly complex plot going at a brisk pace and packing in enough story and one surprise after another in the space of just over six minutes. We actually don’t learn all that much about the siblings’ original community and yet there seems to be a lot of depth in it – certainly we get some sense of the priests’ hypocrisy and panic when the fanatical community threatens to get out of hand and tear the toddler from limb to limb for desecrating a sacrificial offering.

Viewers will either laugh along with the jokey poke in the eye at religious fanaticism and blind faith or be just as stunned as the children when the scales literally fall from their eyes at where they are delivered.

Oasis: eco-SF fantasy on societies’ responses to new ideas and ideologies

Florencia Atra, Leonard Hicks, Man Luo, Claire Matz, Luana Nguyen, Marine Petri, “Oasis” (2019)

Compared to other Gobelins animated shorts I have seen so far, the symbolism behind “Oasis” is a little more complicated to follow. The film revolves around two characters, the child Edwin and his agronomist mother Amaranthe, who live in a desert oasis paradise growing plants for scientific study. Edwin recovers a tiny plant from the sand which, when doused with special liquid nutrient that Amaranthe has developed, disrupts the precious ecosystem that Amaranthe has so carefully nurtured over the years. The plants die off, Amaranthe is devastated that her life’s work now lies in ruins, and a looming desert storm threatens to bury the entire oasis. Amaranthe allows Edwin to put his troublemaker plant into the central reliquary where her precious plant once stood, and Edwin’s plant promptly revives the entire ecosystem and wards off the dust storm.

The message of this little eco-SF fantasy seems to be that Edwin and his little plant represent a new paradigm of ideas that threaten societies long accustomed to a particular order and way of viewing the world that may no longer have any relevance or basis in a changed reality. Such societies will reject and suppress these ideas until an existential crisis threatens the survival of these societies; only then are the new ideas and new models accepted as the new mainstream paradigm.

The animation in “Oasis” is well done though not very remarkable. Background animation can be very lush and gorgeous as would be expected of a sudden explosion of green exotic flora. The characters communicate by looks and facial expressions. The music soundtrack is forgettable. “Oasis” is noteworthy mainly for its plot and the parable-like message behind it.

Ne Zha: noisy overblown blockbuster film with a message about changing one’s destiny

Jiaozi, “Ne Zha” (2019)

A loud, noisy and overblown blockbuster animation fantasy made to please most people, this film is loosely based on a legend about the birth of a divine hero in Chinese folk religion. Essentially the film portrays the origin story of Ne Zha, the son of Li Jing, a military commander in charge of a fortress at Chentang Pass, and Lady Yin. Before his birth, Ne Zha was supposed to receive the essence of the Spirit Pearl, created as one half of a Heavenly Pearl given by the Lord of Heaven; the other half, known as the Demon Pearl, would be used to create elsewhere a demon whose life-span will be only three years, during which period the demon brings havoc and destruction to humanity, and after which the evil being is destroyed by lightning. (Talk about having your life already mapped out for you before you’re born!) Evil forces however conspire to dupe the Taoist immortal Taiyi Zhenren, portrayed in the film as a drunken fatso with little self-control, in order to steal the Spirit Pearl from him and infuse the Demon Pearl into Lady Yin’s unborn child. The result is that Ne Zha is born with the spirit and hot-headed temperament of a demon and ends up being hated and persecuted by the village folk living around the fortress. Li Jing, Lady Yin and Taiyi Zhenren, grieving that the boy will only live three years, resolve to train him so that he may be able to control his demonic nature and powers (which keep the village’s construction and waste recycling industries extremely busy) and perhaps use them for good.

In the meantime, the Spirit Pearl is used by Taiyi Zhenren’s rival Shen Gongbao to infuse its essence into the son of the Dragon King, imprisoned along with his fellow dragons deep in the ocean and yearning to escape and reimpose their rule on Earth. The son, Ao Bing, later meets Ne Zha during a tussle with a sea demon who nearly kills Ao Bing. Ne Zha saves Ao Bing’s life and the two boys, unaware that they are supposed to be mortal enemies, become friends.

The film plays very hard and fast with the characters and plot of the original legend, setting the cast and the story in a template of goodies-versus-baddies and the story itself being fairly simple and easy to follow so it has to be padded out with a nearly endless series of fights involving as many explosions, impossible feats of magic that break the laws of physics, and martial arts derring-do, all performed at insane ear-shattering levels of noise. The characters look as if they’re straight out of a Disney or Pixar film and are for the most part very one-dimensional. There is little to indicate that both Ne Zha and Ao Bing experience much inner conflict wrestling with their essential natures and vowing to overcome or change what Fate decreed for them. Li Jing and Lady Yin are little more than father and mother stereotypes and Taiyi Zhenren plays his buffoon role for cheap laughs.

The film’s message that one does not need to accept one’s destiny and nature as given and can change for the better is strong throughout the film. There are also other messages about how discrimination and prejudice can persuade victims to be resentful and vengeful, and how simple acts of kindness can help people change for the better. Above all, viewers not familiar with traditional Chinese culture can see an emphasis on balance and harmony: the water nature of Ao Bing (dragons being essentially water creatures in Chinese mythology) balances the fiery nature of Ne Zha in their encounters; and this emphasis is also at the heart of Ne Zha’s training to be a well-rounded human, Ne Zha having to learn to balance his demon nature with self-control, awareness of his powers, and using knowledge and thinking to deploy his powers to protect, defend and save others less powerful than he.

The best part of the film is its backgrounds and special effects. What a pity though that the cast of characters, the story-line and the pyrotechnics fail to do the technical design justice.

Shadow Thief: a critique of social and cultural pressure on individuals to conform to other standards

Kim Heeyae, “Shadow Thief” (2018)

Done entirely in black and white and shades of grey with no dialogue, this animated short is a brilliant critique of the pressure on individuals to conform to dominant social standards and values even if these turn people into mindless clones tied to (and to be eventually crushed by) the corporate state capitalist machine. An unnamed man observes the shadows of other apparent physical clones of himself as very similar while his own shadow resembles a Henry Moore sculpture. After being rejected by one set of prospective employers after another and another because his shadow just doesn’t look the same as everyone else’s shadows, our man tries to mould his shadow (and thus himself) into what he believes is required of him. The jobs still evade him so in desperation he attempts to steal a perfect shadow to wear. This requires him to murder someone …

With no monologue or dialogue to speak of, the film must rely on its anti-hero’s facial expressions and body language to convey his disappointment, anguish and panic at being rejected for not being a square peg to fit into a round hole, and on the body language of other people and their shadows to show rejection and mocking. The irony in the film comes when our anti-hero, in doing what he does to steal a shadow, expresses his individuality in full (because what other person would do what he does, in that clone society?) and on doing so, runs away from the consequences and the ownership of his action. He becomes a true individual but cannot cope with that reality.

The animation may be simple and the backgrounds a little cartoonish in appearance but its story is powerful. The ambiguous ending is appropriate for the plot: we are left wondering whether the anti-hero will ever own up to his crime willingly or by force.

Little Audrey – Tarts and Flowers: sugar and spice that are not too nice in a rich and lavish film

Bill Tytla, “Little Audrey – Tarts and Flowers” (1950)

Part of a series of cartoons about a cute kindergarten-aged girl called … well, what else? … Little Audrey, this little short film packs in puns and jokes a-plenty amid some sumptuous artwork and (of course) visual gags. Our heroine takes instructions on baking gingerbread cookies from a radio cooking program: the interplay between the instructor (who can’t possibly see what the child is doing) and Little Audrey as she throws a hundred million ingredients into a mixing bowl and beats the mixture faster than Superman can punch up Darkseid with Krypton speed has its amusing moments. Once Little Audrey has her dough sitting in the oven, the cooking program ends and she drifts off to sleep with the timer set to go off in half an hour …

… and when it does, Little Audrey is astonished to see a live gingerbread man jump out and announce he’s off to a place called Cakeland to see his date. Little Audrey follows him all the way where he introduces her to his fiancee Miss Angel Cake and announces their marriage. Little Audrey assists Miss Angel Cake with her wedding preparations and follows the two into the chapel where the priest will marry Gingerbread Man and Miss Angel Cake. Next thing you know, the villainous Devil’s Food Cake fellow, complete with forehead horns, twirly moustache and goatee beard, turns up and kidnaps Miss Angel Cake. Gingerbread Man and Little Audrey (the latter calling on the cop cakes) must try to rescue Miss Angel Cake before she is whisked off to Devil’s Food Cake Island through Strawberry Short Cut. Well, that’s the kind of cheesecake punning we must put up with in this cartoon.

The short treads a good balance between an excess of cream and cake on the screen and actual saccharine sweetness: there’s very little on the screen that makes viewers feel nauseous, the jokes can be clever and the film rockets along at a cracking pace so there’s no time to linger on anything. Cakeland and its dancing citizens, along with the fantastic cake, cream and pastry architecture, have a dream-like quality and the colours used in the film are lush and vibrant. An interesting twist comes at the end of the cartoon when Little Audrey realises she has been dreaming and takes the dough mixture out of the oven; the reaction she has when she sees what’s in the pan is priceless. Did she really dream or was her little adventure for real?

While the animation of the characters isn’t very good and the plot is basic (the cartoon is aimed at a very young audience), the overall look of the cartoon is rich, even lavish. Pastries dance the can-can and perform Hollywood-style musical numbers to celebrate the wedding. Young viewers will learn something about being helpful to others without expecting any rewards, and being grateful for help offered selflessly.

The Mad Hatter: an insubstantial story in a detailed cartoon universe

Sid Marcus, “The Mad Hatter” (1940)

Mocking the faddish nature of women’s fashions, this animated short can be surprisingly critical of the nature of everyday work in capitalist society, the slave routine it forces on people, and how some people can end up quite deranged as a result. A secretary called Maisie jumps out of bed when her alarm clock rings and races through her morning routine of shower, brushing her teeth, getting dressed and made-up for work, and gobbling her breakfast literally on the fly. She runs after the bus so hard, she actually manages to catch up with it; the catch though is that as soon as she reaches it, she and the bus have both arrived at the bus stop where she would normally get off! Hitting her desk in reception at the precise time of 8:30 am when work starts, she immediately does start to work: she hauls out a box of candy to chomp on and a soapy novel to read while waiting for customers!

Nine hours later, having been finally released from work, Maisie goes to a hat shop to try on various hats: she likes one particular piece and the shop assistant places an order for it. The order goes to the hat factory where various milliner employees, straitjacketed and caged, loll about waiting for their orders! One fellow, eyes rolling about and tongue drooling, is given Maisie’s order and he turns out a veritable mountain of fruit that would have done the then popular Brazilian singer-actress Carmen Miranda proud. The order is delivered to the shop and Maisie promptly buys the hat.

There are many gags poking fun at Maisie and women’s fashion choices generally, and at a particular fashion-related industry that exploits human whim by hiring mentally deranged people to come up with original ideas for making hats. Such gags hark back to times when milliners and their employees really did suffer mental derangement from having to breathe mercury fumes from the solution used to turn animal fur into felt, used as the raw material for hats.

The plot is otherwise insubstantial and the main value of this short is to demonstrate the astonishing details in the animated backgrounds and the gags packed into seven minutes. While characters themselves are not drawn very well, the objects and furnishings in Maisie’s house look surprisingly three-dimensional and accurate. Joke after joke rolls out continuously; even the neighbour’s cat is drawn into a joke that sends up human vanity and intelligence. Animators who only know how to use digital animation databases in creating characters and backgrounds should watch short animated films like “The Mad Hatter” to see how a cartoon can compensate for shallow characters and an equally shallow story by creating a detailed and layered world where the action takes place.

The Last Knit: dealing with a personal inner hell of addiction and compulsion

Laura Neuvonen, “The Last Knit” (2005)

Technically this digital animated short is well done but the very simple plot of a woman addicted to knitting a long, long scarf that ends up pulling her over a cliff doesn’t really justify the effort put into the cartoon. The short’s theme on addiction and on how individuals risk their lives and health to satisfy that hunger or need that can never be satisfied become obvious early on. The problem though is that once the theme and the sole character are established, the plot seems at a loss as to what to do with the woman so it keeps digging around in its own groove, the woman knitting and knitting and knitting until the wool runs out so she has to use her hair … all while the scarf grows longer and longer, runs over the cliff’s edge and threatens to pull her into a literal as well as existential void. Come to think of it, all this repetition might be part of the theme of addiction as well … the film is just as addicted to keeping the woman on a one-track journey to her own hell.

Just when you think all is lost for the character, she manages to break her addiction to knitting, only to fall for another … Unfortunately the film does not supply any more information about how the woman came to be addicted to knitting in the first place and whether that addiction replaced still another compulsion. Viewers aren’t likely to feel much connection with or sympathy for the character. The cliff-side setting is attractive and important for the plot but again we learn nothing about why the woman must be there in the first place. The whole scene looks set up for a suicide and perhaps as the short comes to a close and the woman shows signs of developing another uncontrollable obsession, the prospect of suicide as a release from a personal inner hell becomes a possibility.

At the time of its release, the film was popular in film festivals around the world but its theme and the implications of that theme, along with the shortcomings of the plot and the character design, seem to have made sure that the film would be forgotten.

All’s Fair at the Fair: a utopian view of materialism, seductive advertising, over-consumption and futuristic trends

Dave Fleischer, “All’s Fair at the Fair” (1938)

Best known for their Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, US animators Max and Dave Fleischer occasionally made animated shorts with biting wit and satire. “All’s Fair at the Fair” is a rare piece made in colour (and fairly soft colours at that) about an elderly couple, Elmer and Mirandy, from the sticks who drive into the city in their horse-drawn cart to visit a “World Fair”. Regular city folks either whiz past Elmer and Mirandy in their souped-up cars or arrive by train at the fair packed in sardine-tin carriages. Elmer and Mirandy leave their horse and carriage to the tender mercies of a car-parking valet (who uses a crane with a giant magnet to dump the horse and carriage into a junkyard) and explore the various beguiling offerings. They watch a machine pump out houses almost in the manner of a 3D-printing machine. They drink orange juice made from an orange grown in double-quick time by another machine, prefiguring GM food and food production. The couple are attended and groomed by various robots on separate assembly lines for men and women: they are groomed, shaven, powdered and literally reshaped (in Mirandy’s case, in a suspicious-looking Iron Maiden contraption) so that when they meet again, looking half their ages, they barely recognise each other. (I must have missed some tiny part of the cartoon where robots injected the couple with blood and plasma drawn from babies and young children, and used liposuction to suck out the fat and flab from the couple’s bodies.) They are taught the latest dances by robot dancing-teacher guides. At every step of the way, the couple pay a dime to use the services offered. Cars come out of vending machines and woollen clothes straight from the sheep can be made up faster than the incredulous couple can sneeze.

The look of the film is soft with pastel colours and buildings in curvy Metropolis-inspired Art Deco style. Details are emphasised as well as the general appearance, as you’d expect in a simple and uncomplicated plot where the main characters are physically transformed and rejuvenated. The futuristic contraptions and their products and services turn out to be surprisingly prescient. Capitalism reigns throughout the film in the form of mechanical hands begging for money and in vending machines that can spew out the most impossible goodies. Fortunately Elmer and Mirandy seem to have brought plenty of cash to splurge on being pampered and buying things they don’t really need.

I’m sure in a period in which the world was just coming out of a global depression, and farmers were still very poor, this cartoon about the seductive blandishments of materialism aimed at goggle-eyed innocents, unaware that they are being exploited, and the over-consumption that results, must have left quite a few 1930s audiences red-faced in recognition that they also fell for similar brainwashing from mass advertising.