Toons of the 2000s: Top 5 Animated Shorts
Short films – that’s where the good stuff is. Sure, TV series and
feature films get the mainstream glory, but they are – to crib
shamelessly from Ambrose Bierce – merely short films padded. Just look
at the things! Ideas good and bad alike get stretched mercilessly
across 100-odd minutes or, God help us, thirteen twenty-minute episodes a year. Artistic vision is diluted with homeopathic thoroughness by Hollywood
execs and outsourced animation; long-dried eyes are fixed firmly on the
bottom line. “The more money that’s involved in a project the less
imagination there will be in the project, and vice versa,” as famed
beardo Alan Moore once said.
By analogy, short films are lithe and trim athletes; TV series and
feature films, meanwhile, are colossal lardarses: their bodies great
acres of blubber, their pendulous jowls resembling saggy, blue-veined
buttocks, their limbs ever-shifting oceans of lumpy porridge, their sugar-encrusted maws forever agape as they release low, continuous
bellows directed at the heavens like the despairing sounds of futile
Thankfully, the 21st century is here to liberate us from our gargantuan
oppressors. DVD has been kinder to short film compilations than VHS
ever was, and the Internet has been a veritable godsend. We need no
longer pay to look at a bloated abomination at the cinema; we can
watch athletic beauties online. Thus, in celebration, toonzone is here to kneel in willing
submission to the decade’s five lithest gymnasts. But first, some honorable mentions:
- Kenna – Hell Bent: Engaging stop-motion music video in which color is introduced to a monochrome world.
- How to Hook Up your Home Theater: Revival of the Goofy “How
To…” shorts in which he introduces us to the world of cutting edge
home entertainment. Tries perhaps a little too hard to emulate its predecessors (do we really need a parody of sixty-year-old documentaries?), but it’s good to have the Goof back.
- Madame Tutli-Putli: A woman on a train imagines all manner of
danger around her. A creative blend of stop motion and live action
elements (specifically, the characters’ eyes). Atmospheric, too.
- The Little Matchgirl: Adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen
story about a little girl in the snow with only a few matches for
company. An exercise in traditional Disney animation which avoids being too traditional; a good bit o’ weepy film making.
- A Matter of Loaf and Death: Inventor/dog duo Wallace and Gromit
take up work as bakers, only to find themselves the targets of a
nefarious cereal killer. Doesn’t take the series in a new direction,
but didn’t really need to. Another fine effort from Nick Park and his
- Kiwi: A flightless bird makes a desperate attempt to take to the
skies. A remarkable piece of student animation that puts a lot of
professional cartoons to shame.
- Peter and the Wolf: A retelling of the Sergeyevich Prokofiev
tale. The story has pacing issues, but the lavish stop-motion animation
is a feast for the eyes.
- Jeffery and the Dinosaurs: Documentary about the science fiction
stories of Jeffery H. Marzi, an outsider artist born with mild brain
damage; animated sequences are used to bring his concept art to life. A
sensitive and human film that only misses out on a higher place due to
the amount of live action.
- Ryan: An animated interpretation of Chris Landreth’s interview with Ryan Larkin (1943-2007), who had been a rising star at the NFB three decades prior. Moments such as Larkin’s reaction to a piece of artwork saved from his film Walking (1969) and Landreth’s attempted intervention of a man who did not want to be saved bring a undeniable and relatable emotional intensity to the short.
- The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello: A disgraced aerial navigator flees his plague-ridden homeland on a desperate journey to redeem himself. On the voyage, the airship’s scientist discovers a blood-thirsty creature with the key to curing the mysterious affliction ailing their society. Jasper finds himself faced with the terrible prospect of choosing between the lives of his fellow crew members and delivering the man-eating creature which could saved his ailing wife and mankind. The story is told using characters entirely in silhouette and very well captures the steampunk atmosphere.
And now, without further ado…
Plot: A magician’s conjuring act is scuppered by his white rabbit, who refuses to cooperate until he gets a carrot.
Why It’s Here: We’ve seen a good few stabs at reviving the
noble art of the theatrical short this decade, largely thanks to
Pixar’s practice of releasing one before each of their features. Disney
also gave us a blast from the past with How to Hook Up Your Home Theater – Goofy’s bleary-eyed, whisky-swilling reminiscence about his glory days – and the direct-to-DVD Little Matchgirl.
Presto is where the two seams merge: a typically cutting-edge
Pixar effort which, right from its cloth-textured opening titles, pays
tribute to the golden age. Of special note is the “Mickey Mousing”
soundtrack, where the music is composed to fit the characters’ actions. Plenty of 90s cartoons such as Animaniacs tried to follow in the footsteps of Carl Stalling, but, for my money, never quite pulled it off. Presto does it with aplomb.
And beyond that… well, it’s funny. Sometimes that’s all you need from a cartoon.
4: Gorillaz – Clint Eastwood
Plot: A music video. The Gorillaz members begin performing
in a blank white void, before being transported to a graveyard where
they are joined by the ghost of Del tha Funkee Homosapien and some
dancing zombie gorillas.
Why It’s Here: Here we have a phenomenon that goes right back to round about the
beginning of the decade. I’m not sure if anyone ever expected some of
the niftiest modern examples of good old hand-drawn character animation
to come out of the world of music videos, but there we go. Clint
Eastwood boasts a mix of strong design and slick use of limited
animation, perfectly complimenting the accompanying song.
The current epitome of cartoon cool, the Gorillaz crew are destined to
go down amongst the most fondly-remembered animated characters of the
decade, and Clint Eastwood is their finest moment.
Watch It Online!
3: Adventure Time
Plot: In a strange, relentlessly-cheerful fantasy world, a boy and his dog set off to save Princess Bubblegum from the Ice King.
Why It’s Here: Adventure Time is a delirious leap into the kiddie pool of childhood frivolity. Like Calvin and Hobbes, it manages to perfectly capture the strange imaginary worlds we all
constructed as kids; unlike Watterson’s ultimately adult-minded strip,
it also divorces itself pretty much entirely from the 16+ world. It
actually gives the impression of having been made by a bunch of
unusually talented children.
What I remember the most about the film, though, isn’t the
rubber-legged dog, the mathematical exclamations, or the pep-talking
Lincoln: it’s the way the film brought people together. When it was
first posted online, some of the most jaded animation enthusiasts I knew
were calling for more. That just goes to show that Adventure Time boasts the kind of freshness, warmth, and honest-to-God charm that’s all too rare.
Plot: A young woman, Mikako, is drafted to pilot a
giant robot in a war against aliens in space while her boyfriend
Noboru stays behind on Earth.
Why It’s Here: When we start colonizing other planets, it’s going to take a really long time for our text messages to arrive.
That’s the basic premise behind Voices of a Distant Star. The film
interweaves Mikako’s battles against the aliens with the emotions
arising from her long-distance relationship; it now takes years for
the simplest message to reach Noburu.
Famously made entirely by Makoto Shinkai on a Mac with a slickness that
would embarrass a lot of professional anime, Voices of a Distant
Star is a pitch-perfect story of love and war. Well, mainly love. The
fight scenes are great: the CGI robots are cool, the aliens are imaginatively designed, and their scuffles engaging. But at the end of
the day that kind of thing just isn’t the point of the film: it’s the absence of event that forms its backbone. The periods between text
messages, the gaps between fights, the negative spaces which Mikako and
Noburu fill with longing – the further into the cosmos we travel, the
further apart we are as people; that’s the human cost of advance.
Plot: Two children kill a rabbit for its fur, only to
find a strange “idol” living inside. They soon find that they can use
the idol’s alchemical powers for their own personal gain.
Why It’s Here: Given the richness and diversity of
animated shorts today, picking out a single film as the best of the
decade is painful. I decided to go with Rabbit simply because
it manages to cover a lot of bases. It’s both up-to-date in terms of
technology and rooted in mid-century illustration. It’s both a
straightforward story and downright bizarre.
The film was inspired by a set of educational stickers, illustrated in the
fifties by Geoffrey Higham, which were designed to teach children simple words.
Strangely, amongst stickers teaching children words such as “tree”,
“jar”, and “horse” was a picture of a curious yellow figure simply labeled “idol”. In essence, the entire film is a tribute to that idol
sticker and its incongruity amongst the other, relentlessly wholesome
Animated in After Effects using images taken directly from Higham’s
stickers (even the captions are retained), the imagery takes on an
unnerving quality, as though the clean-to-the-point-of-sterility world
inhabited by Janet and John, Dick and Jane and all those other beaming
sprogs has been brought to our screen not by Disney’s illusion of life,
but by some kind of necromancy. The murky photographic sky contrasts
sharply with the painterly world below. Cracks in the Ladybird Books
facade are showing, and something strange is underneath. And that’sbefore the idol leaps out of the bisected rabbit.
Of course, nothing could be easier than to poke fun at the Dick and Jane aesthetic. But Rabbit is no such cheap shot. “The images in Rabbit hark back to a time when
it didn’t seem so important to be greedy,” says director Run Wrake (as
quoted in Clare Kitson’s fascinating look at independent animation in
the UK, British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor). “[I]t
genuinely did seem to be a simpler time, when simpler values were
admired. It’s a very unfashionable thing to say, but I think it’s worth
How much of Rabbit is a subversion of Janet and John’s
apple-cheeked world, and how much is repackaging the same fundamental
values for a new audience? It is after all a fundamentally moral tale,
albeit a macabre one (much like another product of the 1950s, the EC
horror comics). And let’s not forget that it was Higham, not Wrake, who
created that freakish idol in the first place.
And that’s Rabbit for you: an ingenious synthesis of the
old and new, creating something that’s both fresh and familiar. The
perfect film to finish on as we celebrate the past while heading for
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