It's Tough to Be a Bird

Walt Disney Pictures

Everybody loves birds. At least that’s what Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox were betting on with last weekend’s Rio 2, the sequel to 2011’s hit animated avian musical comedy. Yet the notices aren’t great – our own Neil Miller gave it a C in his review. I’m sure the film will make a whole bunch of money, especially in merchandising, but a lot of you bird fans are probably staying home.

As Adam Bellotto explained in his article about creating a great “animated bird movie,” this is actually a genre. It has rules, or at least guidelines for how to prevent something dreadful like Free Birds.

It shouldn’t surprise you, either. Cinema is the art of motion, and there are few acts more mystifying than flight. It sits just out of reach for most live action movies, as it’s a little hard to shoot in the air. Animators are the magicians best able to hone in on this fascinating, natural miracle. For proof, just look at the Oscar record.

No animated short with the word “bird” in the title has ever lost the Best Animated Short Oscar, and five have won. Here are three of the best.

The Crunch Bird (1971)

Let’s start off with something light. One of the shortest films to ever win an Oscar, The Crunch Bird is essentially an elaborate joke. A woman is trying to buy a birthday gift for her husband, an irredeemable workaholic grouch. She decides to get him a pet, specifically a “crunch bird” she finds in a pet store.

The design is exaggerated, the people drawn with odd proportions and large ridiculous noses. Backgrounds are either slightly off-kilter or dispensed with entirely. This sets up the bird itself, ugly enough to be comic relief. It falls into a long tradition of cartoons that take advantage of the awkwardness of birds, emphasizing their reptilian unsightliness rather than their grace. Like the bumbling heroes of Chicken Run, the crunch bird underlines the unlikeliness of flight.

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It’s Tough to Be a Bird (1969)

This bizarre, educational Walt Disney film manages to address both sides of this aesthetic coin, the comic ugliness of the buzzards and the legendary grace of the storks and egrets. Our narrator is a funny-looking red character of indeterminate species, who opens his lecture by explaining just how difficult the life of a bird actually is. They get no respect, they’re shot at all the time, etc. This is, of course, a grave injustice because we owe them so much: Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” idioms like “to chicken out,” and Tin Pan Alley hit song “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.”

As you can maybe tell, the strength of this cartoon isn’t exactly its pedagogical value. What makes it worth watching is the ingenuity of its technique. Most of it is traditional hand-drawn animation, charismatic and clever in its depiction of all these avian milestones in human cultural history. In the middle, however, it switches to live action for another layer of aesthetic dedication to both the attractive and unattractive members of the avian family. There’s also a documentary sequence filmed at Buzzard Day celebrations in Hinckley, Ohio.

The triumph, however, is a final animated victory lap in the cartoon’s last couple minutes. The educational style devolves into a surrealist parade of images, many of them animated with flat cutouts in the style of Terry Gilliam‘s contributions to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. They have much the same feel, actually, without all of the flying butts and related fart jokes. Eggs fly out of people’s ears, chicks emerge from footballs, and a general mood of anarchy arises. It’s entrancing and thoroughly surprising in a Disney cartoon.

Watch the film in three parts on YouTube

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Moonbird (1959)

If The Crunch-Bird and It’s Tough to Be a Bird are examples of the success that can be made from the use of birds as either awkwardly ugly or gracefully gorgeous, Moonbird raises the bar by combining these two elements in a single creature. The film is an animated fantasy, built from audio that animators John and Faith Hubley secretly took of their two sons having a charming imagined adventure. Their quest is to find and capture a “moonbird,” a mythical creature with which they have become obsessed.

The animated world that the Hubleys created from this quiet endeavor is, in essence, a visual representation of the imagination of a child. It is almost unintentionally melancholic, existing in the foggy space of easy creativity that we lose as we grow up. The older of the two sons is even made translucent, as if he already has only one foot left in this wonderland. The moonbird itself, when it finally arrives, has the awkward comedy of gangling legs and a strangely shaped head. It also possesses a stunning tranquility, a hesitant beauty that fits perfectly into the dreams of these two kids.

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