Quickies: Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films
With the release of Moana this month, Walt Disney Animation Studios will embark on two expected Oscar campaigns for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song. The Animated Feature category is always a hotly contested field, with Disney having two likely nominees (Moana and Zootopia), and a third in Disney-Pixar’s Finding Dory.
But there’s likely a third Oscar campaign on the horizon, for the animated short Inner Workings that will be released with the film. While the Animated Short category is typically little more to most people than a weird section to consider for their Oscar pool, I find it to be one of the more intriguing places for animated media in motion pictures today. Beyond deserving our attention, I have a special connection to a recent Disney short release that I’d like to try to take this time to explain.
Disney is long considered a premier source for short animation, and their success in this category has led to the untouchable plateau of 26 Oscar wins for their work. But for such a long running category and for all the prestige they have, Disney Animation had actually been absent from the winners platform for over 40 years. Their recent success in the category is spurred by creative chief John Lassiter’s commitment to develop in-house voices and a renewed focus on paired releases with major wide releases. This is due in part to breaking the rigid franchise thinking of feature length products, and allows for experimentation with animation styles and storytelling techniques.
Their recent successes began with Paperman in 2012, a story about magic that is tapped into when the all hope has been exhausted. With a throwback design of an American post-industrial city and flat animation with flourishes that make the moving images seem to be drawn in the moment. It’s masterful technical combination of a 2D aesthetic and 3D technologies was a breakthrough for Disney, and a similar throwback vibe with the Mickey Mouse fronted Get A Horse! lead to back to back nominations in the category for the first time in 10 years.
In 2014, Disney made a return to their glory days with their third consecutive nomination for Feast, which is a very complicated movie for me to watch. I feel like I should qualify before I begin this conversation, this has nothing to do witht the story structure or the animation style, both of which I feel are successfully executed. The animation combines an art deco effect to the point that the design almost looks like cut outs from a retro future children’s book. The story follows a small Boston Terrier who is found in an alley and persuaded to trust his human through food. The story continues as vignettes of the dog and his human as happy bachelors, enjoying nachos, burgers, even a falling parade of food at a key big moment in a big football game. Their life is perfect from the little dog's point of view, until his human meets a woman and begins a courtship that trades nachos for salads and spaghetti dinner for kibbles and parsley.
The dog’s human and his girlfriend have a disagreement, and the man returns to his previous slovenly ways with reckless abandon, including his fur covered partner in crime in the post break-up gluttony. All the old staples are back, and more delicacies come to the table. Ice cream, steaks, tacos, it’s all on the menu. Until one day, when a to go order of pasta and meatballs reveals a stray piece of parsley, and the man’s memory is turned back to his former partner who changed his ways. The little dog sees the hints of pain and, choosing between the buffet in front of him and his owners happiness, sprints in a mad dash that forces his robe clad human behind him. His destination? The restaurant where the man’s girlfriend works as a waitress. Seeing each other again and spurred by the little dogs action, they reconcile and marry, and the non bachelor lifestyle settles around the little dog again, parsley and all.
Over multiple viewings of Feast, I've been overcome with emotions. From the moment of the sprint through a little plot twist about the eventual fruits of the couple's labors, I am typically in tears. When I first saw the short, as attached to Big Hero 6, I was weeping behind my 3D glasses. Over multiple viewings on home media, I have had the same reaction as that first viewing in a dark theater, and on the most recent viewing I somehow became even more caught up in the action, starting my tears at the moment of the big football celebration and being unable to talk about these feelings existence for a full hour. And while I’m not especially emotionally stoic, this was unusual enough to have my wife ask me why I am so affected by this silly little dog and his owner.
I’ve thought long and hard on these feelings. I have spent an inordinate amount of time walking paths in parks with this thought in my head, I’ve asked my therapist, I’ve asked other dog owners and other animations fans, I’ve pondered to Twitter in the middle of the night. Even while knowing I wanted to feature these recent Disney Animation Studios shorts for this feature, I have wondered why I have had these feelings. And the answer finally occurred to me just 12 hours before writing out these words.
You see, I have my own version of the little dog with a voracious appetite. I got him over 4 years ago. He was abandoned and living with a foster mom through one of those organizations that rescues dogs from shelters that euthanize. He’d been in the program for months, and they hadn’t found an owner for him over 3 months of ads and social posts. I stumbled on him late one night, while I was sad and looking to distract myself from some recent break up and some anxiety over where my career was going. I made an appointment to meet him, and he wasn’t especially warm or loving, and was actually pretty difficult the whole ride home. I stopped for food on the way home, a burger and fries, and let him explore the house as I sat at the table and tucked into my first meal of the day, at nearly 1 in the afternoon. I glanced towards the tv, looked at my phone, and then felt a cold nose against my ankle.
Seated at my feet, head cocked and a smile on his face, he stared up at me, and then to the french fry in my hand.
Feast’s depiction of the relationship we have with our dogs, the little treats we give them and the lives we share with them remind me of the first inkling of a real bond with my best friend. I’ve done a lot of growing up in the time I’ve had him, changed some bad habits, and added some structure to take care of him easier. Taking care of someone else other than myself got me to straighten my shit out enough to not just meet someone, but deal with the personal insecurities that had caused me to fail in relationships so many times before. I moved in with her, we got another dog, and we eventually got married, and we now share a house with that little guy who’s a little older, a little greyer, and a lot more loving and welcoming when we have a bad day. And in a lot of ways, I have my whole life because of a silly moment with a dog who just wanted a french fry, and someone to trust.
The Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection is currently available to stream on Netflix. Moana is now playing in theatres, with Inner Workings attached before it.