Because the number of animated features produced in a given year is so minuscule when compared to live action features (if you think about it, by having five nominees in the Best Animated Feature category, the Academy is honoring 20% of the animated movies released in a given year), an animation fan must look to animated shorts to try to grasp the state the world of animation found itself in in a given time period. Shorts are creatures that rarely find a commercial afterlife, but they say a lot about where animation had been, and where it was going.
The nineties was a particularly good decade for animation, benefitting from the Disney Renaissance and the Television Animation Boom of the early nineties. By 1995, the Disney bubble was starting to show signs of weakness, while younger studios emerged into the scene and American audiences were getting more and more familiar with international animation (especially Japanese productions). I’ve collected five shorts that, I think, tell us quite a bit of what the world of animation looked like in the mid-nineties. A group that includes some of the key filmmakers and studios that would define the next decade of animation. The one studio which had a big presence back then but isn’t represented in this list is Pixar, which didn’t release a short that year, but only because it had bigger fish to fry.
Ah, L’Amour (directed by Don Hertzfeldt)
Hertzfeldt is perhaps the biggest name in independent animation working today. Hailed as a genius by most connoisseurs of the medium, yours truly did very recently include his fifteen minute short World of Tomorrow in a list of the Best Movies of 2015, which is faint praise considering it is not just “one of”, but the very best piece of cinema I’ve seen so far this year. Ah L’Amour was Hertzfeldt’s first short film, which he created as a final assignment during his freshman year of college. It is a pretty funny bit about a guy whose romantic aspirations are repeatedly denied in bizarrely violent ways. There is a little bit of straight male “oh man, I can’t catch a break with these ladies” discourse in the film, but clocking in at only 2 minutes, and considering that it’s never clear whether the main character’s intentions have a sexual dimension to them makes this a very enjoyable quick watch. It certainly must be amongst the best freshman student films ever made.
Watch It Now: By clicking this link.
Runaway Brain (directed by Chris Bailey)
Not unlike A Goofy Movie, this short seems to be an attempt to revitalize the popularity of one of Disney’s classic characters by giving him a nineties makeover. While Disney was experimenting on television with Goofy and Donald, the company has always been supremely careful about how they use golden boy Mickey Mouse – if they use him at all. This Oscar-nominated short has somewhat of a B-horror bent to it, with Mickey meeting a mad scientist, Dr. Lobotomy (voiced by Kelsey Grammer), who transfers his brain into the body of a giant monster and vice versa. This is not the first time Mickey was pitted against gigantic foes, but while the short features high quality animation, it doesn’t really have much going for it.
Or, at least, it doesn’t have much going for it that actually belongs to it. Most of the humor is based on references and gags alluding to other properties, like the fact that Mickey plays a video game in which Dopey and the Evil Queen are Street Fighter characters. The whole video game bit, as well as the horror milieu seem to be attempts to turns Mickey into an “edgier” character, one who could leave behind his wholesome image to fit in with the cool, more adult-friendly, cartoons of the nineties. The truth is the movie isn’t edgy or funny enough to succeed int his regard.
Still, most of the movie’s weaknesses lie in the story department, which is my way of saying this is a very fine looking short with some pretty good moments of character animation. Directed Chris Bailey had worked in the animation department of quite a few Disney production up to this point (including The Lion King), and would go on to do solid directing work on Clerks: The Animated Series and Kim Possible.
Watch It: Here.
Carrotblanca (directed by Douglas McCarthy)
To say that this short was trying to do with Bugs Bunny and the other Looney Tunes characters what Runaway Brain was trying to do with Mickey Mouse would be a false assessment. Truly, the clearest example of Warner Bros. trying to “update” these characters to the nineties would come with the release of Space Jam the following year. This 8 minute short is fairly true to the style of the more showbiz-heavy Warner Bros. cartoons by re-casting Casablanca with Looney Tunes characters… and that’s pretty much it. It’s not a particularly inspired parody, again, deriving most of its humor from making allusions to the film it’s parodying and classic Looney Tunes jokes. It’s always fun to see Tweety’s face transform into Peter Lorre’s, but I didn’t really need a full short to justify that pleasure. I don’t want to be a grump, but this is certainly the weakest of the five shorts assembled in this post. But don’t let me have the last word if you don’t want, you be the judge and..
Watch it here.
On Your Mark (directed by Hayao Miyazaki)
When I think of music videos in the style of Japanese animation, I obviously think of Daft Punk’s “One More Time” while recognizing that the meeting of art-forms can’t possibly be unique to that song. This is all to say I was still a little surprise to learn that Hayao Miyzaki – probably the most influential name in the past 20 years of animation – directed a music video for the Japanese band known as Chage & Aska. And not only because of ignorant, but because I wouldn’t have guessed Miyazaki to be the kind of guy who would accept such an assignment.
I have no idea what the song is about – because I don’t speak Japanese – but it’s a testament to the talent of Miyazaki as a visual storyteller, and of this video as a piece of silent filmmaking, that I come out with a pretty good idea of what the director might have intended with it (whether or not it’s what the musicians intended is a different question). Even though there is a little bit of shot repetition that I don’t fully understand considering the movie’s otherwise very clean plot, I must give props to Miyazaki for being able to tell a story in the most economically effective way possible narratively speaking (Tim Brayton does a great job of pointing out exactly how he does it here), and this right before going into production on the most indulgent and oversized movie of his career.
You can Watch the video here.
A Close Shave (directed by Nick Park)
At 30 minutes, A Close Shave is both the longest and my favorite film on this list. Although maybe I’m biased. In my opinion, one can’t really go wrong when it comes to Wallace and Gromit. I wouldn’t call A Close Shave the funniest of the Wallace and Gromit adventures (The Curse of the Were-Rabbit probably has the best gags). Neither is it the most original, although to be fair, original would be the wrong word to describe a series of movies that is built on the legacy of classic comedy duos, which is to say formula is essential to their success. That being said, A Close Shave features the best and most imaginative action sequence of the series, and it is also probably the most emotional entry, with its melancholic ending and the whole bit when Gromit is framed for crimes he didn’t commit. If that isn’t enough, it is also the movie that introduced us to the adorable Shaun the Sheep, who has a feature of his own coming out later this year.
Watch it… sadly, it’s not available online, but if you’re an animation fan I would certainly encourage you to get the “complete Wallace and Gromit collection”, which includes this lovely short.