A Year in Shorts Day 223: "The Man Who Planted Trees"
Last week on Twitter comics writer Dan Slott asked people what their four favorite animated shorts of all time were. Unable to resist a good prompt Tweet (or an opportunity to self-promote), I responded with my answer. And I realized that I had yet to cover any of my top four. Well folks, that changes today. It’s time to look at one of my absolute favorite short films (hell, one of my favorite films period). So without further ado, let’s tackle Frederic Back’s 1987 masterpiece, The Man Who Planted Trees.
Based on a short story by Jean Giono, The Man Who Planted Trees is a Canadian short produced, in part, by the National Film Board of Canada; those guys have their hands in everything. It should be noted that there are actually two version of this short, one in French and one in English. While the original short story is French, my review is going to cover the English version. I have a variety of reasons for this, but the main one is that the English language one is narrated by Christopher Plummer! But whatever version you choose to watch, the story remains the same- in the years before World War I, a young man enters a desolate valley in Provence. While there he meets a lonely, quiet shepherd who has dedicated his life to planting trees (that's the name of the movie!). Why he does this and what it accomplishes is the meat of the film, and I can not recommend watching it highly enough. At thirty minutes, this is certainly one of the longest shorts we've covered here. But I promise you that it's worth every second. If I'm wrong, you can ask for a refund from the complaint department.
While the original short story was not a money maker for Jean Giono (due to the fact that he distributed it freely across the world), it was one of the works he was most proud of. It's not very hard to see why. A moving and melancholy film about humility, hard work and one person's ability to bring about great change, The Man Who Planted Trees is certainly one of the most beautiful films we've covered, narratively speaking. I defy even the most hardened cynic to watch this without feeling some glimmer of hope for the human race. Despite being a fictional story, a great many people asked Giono if it were true. And I think, in some strange way, it is. It may not be true in the literal sense, I suppose. Rather, the story itself is an expression of some great and profound truth. Simple stories have a way of doing that, I think. And Christopher Plummer's narration brings it to life perfectly. It's understated in a way which matches the film's tone, but still lively enough to remain compelling, infusing the story with warmth and a dry wit.
But of course, a great story requires great execution to make a truly great film. But it's hard to imagine a film version of The Man Who Planted Trees being better executed than this one. Back's animation is simply exquisite, like an Impressionist painting come to life. (I'm no art expert, but this film bears a clear Monet influence, right? That's all I can think when I watch it.) The movement may be somewhat limited, but honestly, who cares? This is not a short driven by action but by emotion, and any limitations inherent in the style just suit the aesthetic. I especially love the way in which Back is able to create images with very few lines, especially in the early part of the film. In some scenes we see the shape of a man more through what isn't drawn than through what is. And the use of color is masterful too, starting out in earthy, dull tones before gradually adding a more vibrant palette as the valley springs to life. And yet the film always remains a visual treat, even when the colors are at their most muted.
This is thanks in no small part to Back's obvious mastery of visual storytelling. Many times on this blog, I've complimented a short by saying it feels like a picture book come to life. There's something similar going on here, but it's a bit more complex. In shorts like My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts, it feels as though someone is reading a great story to you. But The Man Who Planted Trees could be more accurately described as capturing the feeling of reading a story yourself. The film makes great use of abstract imagery, sweeping "cinematography" and expressive character design to complement the words in a fluid manner that no live action film could ever hope to achieve. The way in which images often blend into each other calls to mind the films of Aleksandr Petrov, although the use of pencils instead of paint-on-glass allows for a cleaner execution of the effect. And those sorts of transitions really work well with the impressionist aesthetic. At times, it seems as if the images are springing to life the second Christopher Plummer speaks them into existence. While it certainly had the potential to be so, The Man Who Planted Trees never feels like an audio book with pictures accompanying it. Instead it is a perfect marriage of words and imagery working together to produce a truly profound and moving experience. And I would be remiss if I overlooked the work of composer Normand Roger, whose score is just the cherry on top of this truly excellent sundae.
Honestly I could go on and on about this film. In case I haven't made it abundantly clear by now, I simply adore it. There are times when people will describe watching a film as a religious experience and I find myself rolling my eyes. But I simply can not think of a better way to sum up The Man Who Planted Trees. I have long believed that there is no such thing as a perfect film, but I am struggling to find a flaw with this one. It's too short? It's so good it makes other films look worse? I don't know.
I suppose I would be remiss if I didn't mention that The Man Who Planted Trees won the Oscar that year. (This is, at the end of the day, an Oscar blog, so that's kind of important.) It ALSO won the Short Film Palme d'Or at Cannes, and was voted number 44 on the Greatest Cartoons poll we talk about sometimes. And that's all fine and good, of course, but honestly? Every now and again there comes a film which is so great it transcends any award you can throw at it. The Man Who Planted Trees is one such film.
That's how you know I liked this one folks. It made me turn the Oscars into an afterthought!
Keep up with the Oscar Baiting here on Letterboxd!
The Great Oscar Baiter is a not-for-profit work of criticism. All images herein are property of their respective owners and are protected under Fair Use.