A Year in Shorts Day 275: "For the Birds"
Sometimes a movie just hands a snarky review to you on a silver platter. Take for instance, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). When the people who made that movie decided to include a scene in which a homeless man screams Macbeth at the top of his lungs, they probably thought they were being very clever. But in reality their greatest achievement was allowing us who hate that movie to use its own delusions of eloquence against it. After all, is there any better way of describing that film other than “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”? It’s even easier when the movie puts the snark opportunities in the title. So be warned aspiring filmmakers- if you’re going to name your film something like For the Birds, make absolutely sure it is anything but!
Directed by long time Pixar employee Ralph Eggleston, For the Birds was first released in 2000, but is probably best known for being shown before screenings of Monsters, Inc. a year later. The premise is pretty simple; unlike a lot of Pixar films, this short isn't trying to tug at your heartstrings. Instead it follows a group of birds sitting on a wire when a much bigger bird tries to sit with them and ruins everything. And that's... pretty much all there is to say about it. To be sure, there are some important technical advances for Pixar here- the animation of feathers and the continuously moving background of the wheat field- but that's not the sort of thing most viewers (or Academy voters) are liable to notice. For most people, For the Birds is just a pretty cute and funny short about some silly, squeaky birds. And sometimes that's enough, and it's certainly a fine way to whet your appetite for the feature film you're about to watch.
But on its own, is it worthy of an Oscar win? Well, I'm not so sure. Certainly it's a cute short, but it's really basic, both in setup and execution. It doesn't do anything wrong, but that has more to do with the fact that it doesn't really take any artistic risks. You have to be more ambitious than this to fail, after all. Granted, the 74th Academy Awards was not exactly a stacked year when it came to animated shorts, at least as far as the nominees were concerned. Sure, For the Birds might not be a great short, but it's not as obnoxious to me as Strange Invaders or as ugly and unpleasant as Fifty Percent Grey. But then again, those shorts (as well as Stubble Trouble, which we've yet to cover) were at the very least more artistically interesting than For the Birds is, even if they might not be as good. Which is to say nothing of Give Up Yer Aul Sins, which very clearly should have been the winner that year. So why did For the Birds go home with the Oscar? Was it because of name recognition with the Pixar brand? Or was there a streak of anti-Irish sentiment running through the Academy that year? Well folks, I have a theory that might explain everything, and it's got quite a few layers to it...
While it may seem strange to us now, Shrek was something of a juggernaut on its initial release, both financially and critically. (Is it any wonder its sequel managed to be the highest grossing film of 2004???) And that wave of success carried Shrek all the way to the Oscars, where it not only became the first film EVER to win Best Animated Feature, but also managed to snag a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. (For those of you wondering, "All-Star" was NOT nominated for Best Original Song, mostly because it is the theme song for Mystery Men, not Shrek, learn some god damn history.) When you get right down to it, its Best Animated Feature win was more or less inevitable, even if Monsters, Inc. was a better movie. So perhaps, knowing this, the Academy decided to throw Pixar a pity win? Certainly the idea of a Dreamworks film beating Pixar for Best Animated Feature nowadays seems downright impossible (they've only managed it once since then, and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is really a Dreamworks film in name only), even with well-received series like How to Train Your Dragon or Kung Fu Panda. But the Academy didn't know that, nor could they anticipate the truly epic run of films Pixar was about to have over the next decade, give or take a Cars movie. I know, it sounds absurd. And yet, it seems to me the most likely option. For while For the Birds might not necessarily live up to its title, I hardly thinks it lives up to its Oscar win either.
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"For the Birds" is available to watch on Disney +
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