This was supposed to be a post about this year’s nominees for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short. But instead, it’s a post that says: what makes Americans squeamish reveals us to be a sick, twisted, demented, Puritanical society.
We’re deviants who shouldn’t be raising children. That’s the entire point of this post. If you agree, you can stop reading. If you feel that point needs support, keep reading. (I say this knowing that only my fellow self-aware deviants will keep reading. Which only proves my point.)
So, the other day, I’m sitting in my local multiplex watching the Academy’s officially licensed and packaged presentation of this year’s Best Animated Shorts. The 100-seat theater is packed, and I’m thinking about how this particular annual presentation has come a long way in the last ten years – tapping into that underserved audience for quality shorts. (At that point, an ad for the “Shorts Channel” doesn’t shock me.)
As opposed to a film festival, the cartoons are all “formatted” together with consistent sound and matching-font-and-graphics title cards that announce the name of the film, its country of origin, and its running time. We watch four of the five nominees in this order: “Sanjay’s Super-Team” (which is basically Pixar’s extended riff on one line from the first ten minutes of Life of Pi, “the Hindu gods were my superheroes”), “World of Tomorrow” (more on that in a moment), “Bear Story” (this season’s deepest meditation on the meaning of animated bears, sorry The Revenant and The Jungle Book), and “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” (which is either an obtuse elegy to the Russian space program or a knowing homoerotic smorgasbord where “cosmos” should be pronounced as the plural of “cosmo”).
Next comes a title card (I’m paraphrasing, but close enough): “Our final nominee is Prologue. Prologue contains violence and nudity and is NOT recommended for children. But first, please enjoy these highly recommended non-nominees.”
We watch not one, but two French cartoons which celebrate the power of rodents over birds. We get the splendiferous, triumphant return of Bill Plympton (you animation geeks know who I’m talking about). We get zero anime, but I think that’s because Japan’s industry is so strong, the Oscars would almost be a downgrade.
Next comes a title card (I’m paraphrasing, but close enough): “And now, our final nominee, Prologue. Prologue contains graphic violence and nudity and SHOULD NOT BE VIEWED BY CHILDREN.” With this second warning, I listen and look at the other 100 people in the theater. Nobody moves. Perverts.
“Prologue” happens (as our epilogue). It’s in the let’s-fall-into-an-animator’s-work genre that became famous after the video for a-ha’s “Take On Me,” but with wonderful sound and breathtaking visuals. Basically, four ancient Greek men fight each other, and two of them have schlongs hanging out (not seen for more than 5 seconds), and thanks to some animated blades and arrows, animated blood gushes, and they all fall down. That’s it.
You will be happy to hear that we are coming to the point of this story. In its infinite wisdom, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (and if you think they’re a joke, just ask any filmmaker competing in the “minor” categories like Shorts and Documentaries) decided that a few seconds of nudity and a smattering of violence that’s about a tenth of what most kids saw in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Incredibles somehow needed two warnings, but the content of “World of Tomorrow” needed zero.
I don’t want to sound as though I disliked “World of Tomorrow”; quite the opposite. It was by far my favorite of the five, and I hope it wins the Oscar in two weeks. But I have to wonder about a society that reacts with repugnance to certain pre-categorized visuals, but gives a free pass to the complex horrors of World of Tomorrow.
What do I mean? Well, “World of Tomorrow” is on Netflix streaming, so watch it and come back. I’ll wait right here. Trust me, it’ll be some of the best sixteen minutes of your year. Is it Safe For Work? Well yeah, it is, that’s kind of my point.
All finished? Good, cause here be spoilers.
Ever since I first saw Monsters Inc., 15 years ago, I’ve wondered why more animation geniuses don’t centralize 3-year-olds. You can’t use them in extended live action (well, not without extensive CGI), but they’re great for breaking down barriers between innocence and bullsh*t, as Boo proved in her adventure with Mike and Sully.
In “World of Tomorrow,” director Don Hertzfeldt takes Boo to the next level, into our quest for reliable intimacy from devices, the parallels between cloning and regular parentage, our hopes for immortality through technology, the building of actualities through memories, and the armageddon of the human race.
Our 3-year-old protagonist meets her future adult self, sort of, who brings her 227 years into her present, and then tells her things like:
“For all its magic, the outernet can be a sad place. Many people from our lower classes have disappeared into its safe infinity, to be never heard from again.”
“To this day [robots] are still in perpetual movement across the sunlight, with no work to do, no more tasks to accomplish, still living in constant fear of death, and occasionally sending us depressed poetry. I will read one of their poems to you now, Emily. ‘The light is life/Robot must move/Move, robot, move/But why?/Move, move, move/Robot, forever move.’”
“I do not have the mental or emotional capacity to deal with his loss. But sometimes I sit in a chair, late at night, and quietly feel very bad. When the night is at its most quiet, I can hear death.”
And there’s this exchange:
Emily (adult): “Our lower classes are desperately trying to escape the meteor through discount time travel, causing untold millions to die in orbit. Their dead bodies burn as they return to Earth, and now light up our night sky.”
Emily prime (3-year-old): “What’s this up in the sky?”
Emily: “Dead bodies.”
Emily prime: “Oh, look, another one!”
Emily: “Yes, it is very pretty.”
Emily prime: “They okay?”
Emily: “No, they’re all dead.”
Emily prime: “I’ll count them. One…”
Emily: “We are all doomed, Emily prime.”
This (modest sampling) is more appropriate for kids than blood and genitals?
I know, I know, I know what you’re going to say. Shouldn’t I compliment the Academy for trusting kids with these weighty issues of death and technology? But that misreads what happened here. You could search far and wide and never find a shorts-organizer, Academy employee, or anyone, say aloud “I think ‘World of Tomorrow’ is appropriate for children.” They didn’t think that far. They said, “oh, nudity and violence, we need a warning.” Anything else, meh. Because we’re still a Puritanical society that can’t handle the kinds of things that indigenous kids in the world’s rain forests see every day. By the way, I have a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old, and I know what makes them hide behind my chair, and in terms of managing their nightmares, I’d prefer showing them “Prologue” to “World of Tomorrow.”
Ultimately, this is not an argument for more censorship or more listening to commonsensemedia.org (they haven’t reviewed “Prologue” or “World of Tomorrow”). Some of my all-time favorite movies deal with profound themes like the ones in the outstanding “World of Tomorrow.” This is simply an argument to re-prioritize our values. Ideas and concepts can be – should be – as scary as, or even scarier than, blood and two dick-pics. But I also realize that re-prioritizing our values is impossible.
We are all doomed, Emily primes.