The big movie this weekend is Neighbors, starring Zac Efron, Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen. This makes it the perfect time to watch another film called Neighbours, starring two Canadian animators and one particularly pesky yellow flower. After all, they’re basically the same movie. You can also consider it your personal celebration of the National Film Board of Canada, which celebrated its 75th anniversary this week.
Norman McLaren‘s Oscar-winning 1952 short is a classic of stop-motion animation. And, like Nicholas Stoller’s new comedy, it is about two next-door neighbors who just can’t get along. The conflict in the new one is a bit more complex, framed as an inter-generational war between a married couple with a young child and a college fraternity. The 1952 Neighbours is just about two nondescript guys, almost exactly alike. They sit next to each other peacefully on their front lawns, reading newspapers that mirror each other. They’re dressed in the same conservative 1950s style. The only significant difference is that one of them has a mustache.
Then disaster strikes. A pretty little yellow flower pops up exactly between the two houses. At first the two men are equally enraptured with its beauty and its sweet smell, flopping all over the yard in ecstasy. Then one of them claims ownership and all hell breaks loose. White picket are erected and demolished, white pickets used as swords and cudgels. The acceleration of violence is unstoppable and these initially quite mild-mannered gentlemen soon find themselves tattered, bruised and monstrous.
Stylistically speaking, this is perhaps the most triumphant example of McLaren’s style. The two men, colleagues of the Scottish-Canadian animator who volunteered as actors, are animated themselves using a technique known as pixilation. They are treated just as every other object in a stop motion film, posed and photographed with the same precision as the fences. They’re like giant, fleshy puppets with especially flexibly facial expressions. The musical score is also arranged by McLaren, via scratches he made on the edge of the original film print itself. This graphical sound has a strange, metallic character that is simultaneously playful and unnerving. He’d later structure an entire cartoon around this technique, 1971’s Synchomy (watch it here).
Yet it isn’t the eeriness of graphical sound that made Neighbours such a controversial choice for the Best Animated Short Oscar. This is a fiery, acerbic and very political anti-war film made in the midst of the Korean War. This was troubling enough for Canada, which only offered combat support to the United States against North Korea and the Chinese. For conservative American audiences this was practically provocation. A particularly violent moment in Neighbours was actually cut before it was released, only included now due to the restoration of a lower-quality print. Wait for it, you’ll know it when you see it.
Maybe Neighbors and Neighbours aren’t basically the same movie. Seth Rogen and Zac Efron presumably don’t stand in for a larger point about geopolitical conflict. The baby probably doesn’t represent Crimea. The Cold War is over and our current crises are often considered too complicated to be expressed through such a direct, powerful metaphor as McLaren’s. Yet things weren’t quite so bipolar in 1952 either, despite the simplicity of the Cold War rhetoric. The specific relevance of this short to any particular conflict is hardly the point. Its broad strokes give a universal influence. The design is striking in its generic vagueness. The soundtrack is made from film itself. Neighbours speaks past the 1950s and outward toward conflict as an idea, an evil perhaps not inherent in the hman mind.
One last thing. If you like Neighbours (and Neighbors) you should check out one more classic short with a similar concept. Dušan Vukoti? creates a neighborhood battle out of music and noise in Piccolo, a product of the legendary Zagreb Film studio in 1959. You can watch it here.