A Year in Shorts Day 329: "Special Delivery"
Let’s be honest- if any decade was a mixed bag when it came to Oscar-winning animated shorts, it was the 1970s. On the one hand you’ve got films like Frank Film or that animated version of A Christmas Carol I still haven’t seen but everyone assures me is good. On the other hand, you’ve got The Crunch Bird or Is It Always Right to Be Right? Lots of highs and lows is what I’m saying. Thankfully, today’s short definitely belongs in the former category. So buckle up as we discuss Eunice Macaulay and John Weldon’s 1978 short, Special Delivery.
(via TV Tropes)
Another production from our friends at the National Film Board of Canada, Special Delivery tells the story of Ralph, a careless man who decides not to clear his front porch one morning. What follows from this one simple act of laziness is a series of escalating accidents, poor decisions and horrible misunderstandings, resulting in a delightfully dark comedy which would make the Coen Brothers blush. Going into too much detail would spoil the fun of watching the film for yourself, but suffice it to say that you're almost certainly not ready for what's in store. Don't let the cutesy animation style fool you is all I have to say. Thankfully, like most NFBC shorts, Special Delivery is available to watch for free on YouTube, so you don't have to take my word for it!
What exactly makes Special Delivery so great? Well, it's hard to pin it down to one thing. It could be the animation, which seems pretty crude and simplistic at first, but quickly reveals itself to be more clever and complex than you might think. I'm especially fond of the transition from the courtroom to the living room late into the film, but the whole short is pretty fun to look at. I'm a fan of the sketchy, colored-pencil look, which makes the short seem more like a children's cartoon than anything else. Of course, the crudely drawn corpses and penises quickly disprove that idea. Then there's the story itself, which is unpredictable, dark and filled with little details that add to the humor. (The fact that Ralph is more concerned about having to pay a fine to the postman's union than he is of the fact that his mailman is dead is probably my favorite joke in the whole bunch.) And it's clear that beyond just the silly comedy, there's something deeper going on here. I wouldn't say that Special Delivery is a particularly political film, but the film has something on its mind. There's an undercurrent of critique regarding government incompetence, the dehumanizing effects of bureaucracy and simple human greed going on. It's subtle, but it's there, and picking up on those themes only enhances the experience.
But if I had to point to one element of this film that makes it work, it's the narration by Sandy Sanderson. (The French language version is narrated by Jean Marchand, but I'm only reviewing the English language version, so I can't speak to how good a job he does.) The script itself is incredibly clever, reading like a storybook for particularly messed up children. And Sanderson's delivery just elevates that script to the level of genius, nailing the cadence to give the short its whimsical tone. He almost sounds bored with the story, as if the events he's narrating aren't that unusual or noteworthy. Rather than undercutting the humor of the story, this only makes it funnier, contrasting Sanderson's laidback performance with the increasingly twisted directions the story takes. (I wonder if that's a staple of Canadian comedy.) And really, all of Special Delivery is a study in contrasts. Everything about this short makes it seem like a cute, innocent cartoon. (I can't be the only one who thinks this kind of looks like The Snowman mixed with a Charlie Brown cartoon, can I?) Everything, that is, except for the story.
Black comedy is an exceedingly hard genre to get right, and few movies nail it nearly as well as Special Delivery. Some films don't really try to be funny, settling instead for being clever. Other films go so hard on the jokes that it crosses the line into tasteless. But Special Delivery provides an excellent blueprint to follow for any aspiring storytellers. By underselling the jokes, Special Delivery only makes them that much funnier. It's an absolute blast to watch, and it's little wonder that it won an Oscar. Really the only question left to ask is why there aren't more cartoons like this.
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