Review by William J. Hammon, Creator of I Actually Paid to See This blog
One of the premiere animation festivals in the world, the Annecy International Animation Festival is a tremendous showcase of creative art, and quite often a launching pad for future Oscar nominees. Over the last few years, films like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline, Loving Vincent, and I Lost My Body were honored in the festival before going on to be nominated by the Academy, and that’s just the features. Recent short film winners like Mémorable and We Can’t Live Without Cosmos also rode the momentum to Oscar night.
So with the We Are One Festival incorporating Annecy’s short film showcase into the mix, it only seems fitting to go through the entire slate of available content. Whether it’s a big studio-funded bit of comedy or an introspective bit of stop-motion, all the entries tell compelling stories in highly imaginative ways that remind us that the only limit is our own imagination.
Bear in mind though, that this is not the official short film competition for this year’s Annecy Festival. The slate of entries has been announced, and that contest will commence on June 15 in an online capacity for their membership alone. What’s been curated for We Are One are shorts that have either been in competition or showcased at Annecy in the last few years. That doesn’t take away from the quality of the films one bit, but don’t expect to have a leg up on your office Oscar pool next year.
Directed by William Salazar, Bird Karma could just settle for being a somewhat funny bit of slapstick about a wide-eyed crane trying to catch a fish, but the creators take a very simple concept and imbue it with poignance and fantastic artwork.
Beginning with a simple pencil sketch background of reeds and water ripples, the only color initially shown is a blue fish eating a green insect. As the film comes more into focus, so does the scenery, remaining black and white and resembling graphite, but becoming sharper and more detailed. More color is introduced when the main character, a crane, comes into the shallow marsh searching for food. He dines on blue fish while the musical score provides a delightful mixture of mouth harp and sitar.
When the bird encounters a golden fish, however, things are kicked into glorious overdrive. Color comes at you from all sides as the fish evades capture. The settings become even more vivid, the scope of the camera becomes more lively, and what started as a bit of goofiness turns into an almost profound statement on the consequences of overindulgence, with a moral about appreciating the true beauty all around you. The fact that Salazar and his team are able to get that across while still maintaining a strong degree of comedy (with a particularly dark and humorous climax) makes for a really strong entry. The film was shortlisted by the Academy in 2019, and it’s easy to see why.
Another entry from DreamWorks, Bilby is something a bit more traditional in modern animated fare. It’s competent 3D CGI, relies on the cute factor, and brings the comedy full force from beginning to end.
Set in the Australian Outback, the film follows the titular marsupial as he strolls back to his remote hidey-hole with an armful of food, which he tries to keep insects from stealing. Along the way, he encounters a puffball albatross chick with giant eyes who cheeps at him adorably. Trying to ignore the infant bird, it is set upon by a predator, so the bilby saves it, while at the same time maintaining his food supply. When he places the chick on a rock, seemingly out of harm’s way, a snake shows up for an easy meal. On the third attempt, the bilby is chased by dingos. With the tiny chick still in mortal danger, and the bilby’s fruit supply completely diminished, dropping items along the way. The action speeds up to a montage of the two dodging just about every animal imaginable that could eat one or both of them.
This is high quality slapstick, if a bit derivative. The bilby’s design is similar to a 3D rendering of Bugs Bunny, he sighs with a human voice similar to Tom the cat or Wile E. Coyote, and the spastic nature of the ensuing antics recalls all the Scrat the Squirrel shorts associated with the Ice Age franchise. The blissfully ignorant of her own mortality albatross chick is reminiscent of the title character from the Oscar-winning Pixar short, Piper, though not nearly as realistic looking. She looks more like Gidget the poodle from the Secret Life of Pets series, only if she were a bird.
Despite all that, there are rapid fire laughs, and the resolution is cute enough for what it’s trying to do. Like Bird Karma, this was shortlisted for the Animated Short Oscar last year, though not ultimately nominated. Still, the two films combined represent an earnest effort for DreamWorks to expand their animation department into the short film realm, and I for one welcome it. If you don’t get the chance to see them via We Are One, they are available on DreamWorks’ YouTube page, and they’re included with the DVD/Blu-Ray of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.
The final DreamWorks showcase played in theatres last year in some cities before the feature Abominable, so it’s possible you might have already seen it. This is arguably the simplest of the three, and with the most blatant appropriation of another story, but the quality is high enough to be forgiven.
Stranded on an abandoned base on the Moon, a silent robot is hard at work building a ship so it can return to Earth, using scraps it finds along the surface. If your immediate reaction is, “Discount WALL-E,” you’re not alone. This boxy little automaton bears a lot of similarities to 2008’s Best Animated Feature winner, from its work ethic to the way it romanticizes Earth (including photos of tourist attractions and longing gazes at the planet as it rises in the distance) to the Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton-esque ambient score as it goes about its work. Seriously, all we’re missing at the start is a VHS of Hello Dolly.
But where this short film separates itself is when the robot finally comes across its companion. As it tugs a shuttle wing to its personal hangar, it finds a smaller robot buried in the moon dust, so it rushes back to its garage to find a battery to power the tiny bot on. Once activated, the smaller robot acts more like a little brother or a nephew than a love interest. It’s rudimentary, doesn’t understand basic instructions, and gets in the way more often than not as the bigger bot continues to build its ship. Only once the smaller robot gets a glimpse of Earth itself does it understand the zeal behind its partner’s mission.
And unlike WALL-E, the film ends on more of a moral quandary than the conclusion of a heroic arc. As the ship nears completion, the larger robot realizes that it doesn’t have a power source, as it gave the lone working battery it had to the smaller robot to activate it and in essence bring it to life. While brief (because it’s a short), the larger robot has to contend with the responsibility he indirectly took by bringing a new life into the universe, and has to make a decision as to whose needs are more important. It’s a surprisingly mature conclusion to a film that began with the same slapstick as Bilby, only with robots.
All three DreamWorks films have a superlative aspect to them. Bird Karma has by far the most creative and artistic animation of the bunch. Bilby is the most comfortable and easily has the biggest laughs. And then there’s Marooned, which goes farther than the other two in challenging the audience on a deeper level. The studio hasn’t quite stepped up to the big leagues yet in the short animation game, and the amount of inspiration they take/borrow from Pixar is obvious, but all three show amazing potential.