‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’ won Best Animated Short—the worst contender by far, backed by a celebrity-studded network of executives and big-shots
In the lead-up to Oscars Sunday, I went to Nitehawk on a whim to watch the nominated shorts. The screening was just for the animation category, my friends and I quickly realized, which wasn’t what I might have elected for—but, ultimately, was fine.
First up, An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It—Lachlan Pendragon’s meta stop-motion about a little clay character who falls off an office-job set, realizing he’s a puppet in the hands of a faceless animator. It was entertaining, if conceptually a bit tired. (And visually straining—shot entirely through a video-camera frame, with out-of-focus goings-on outside of the border.) We ranked each short, holding our fingers up in the dark so as not to disturb other audience-members. This one scored a five.
There was also The Flying Sailor, the shortest and most abstract of the lot, based on the Halifax Explosion of 1917; a freighter ship carrying 200 tons of TNT exploded, killing 1,800-plus and launching one man—Charlie Mayers, who the film is loosely based on—over two kilometers. He lived to tell the tale. We gave it a seven.
My Year of Dicks and Ice Merchants were the highest-ranking, averaging around an eight. The former chronicles writer Pamela Ribon’s teenage quest to lose her virginity, switching genres from act to act—from horror to comedy to anime—to produce a gritty, unserious, highly-sentimental account of coming of age. The latter imagines a father and son, suspended up in the mountains; they provide ice to a town at the base, parachuting down daily to sell their wares, sitting by silently as the cables supporting their cabin groan in the heavy wind. This one was rather moving, a portrait of love and mortality—my personal favorite, which I thought would probably win at the more official ceremony to come.
“At the very least, I was sure that one short in particular couldn’t steal the Oscar; The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, directed by Peter Baynton and Charlie Mackesy, was by far the worst.”
But just as easily, it could have been My Year of Dicks, or even The Flying Sailor. I’m not a film expert, or one to check award-show forecasts—these just seemed like the logical frontrunners. At the very least, I was sure that one short in particular couldn’t steal the Oscar; The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, directed by Peter Baynton and Charlie Mackesy, was by far the worst. Adapted from the children’s book of the same name, it should have stayed that way: far too long, strangely voice-cast, cloying to the point of condescension. The four titular characters wander through a snowy wilderness, trading senseless adages meant to be wise or profound; “What do you want to be when you grow up?” asks the supposedly “cute” mole in his grown man’s timbre. “Kind,” answers the boy.
So when The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse did indeed take the Oscar, I was baffled. And I wasn’t alone. Under the Academy’s official tweet announcing Baynton and Mackesy’s win are countless variations on “ICE MERCHANTS ROBBED” and “the worst of the lot.” In terms of media coverage, the controversy hasn’t gone unmentioned; Slate produced an op-ed in support of My Year of Dicks, and the Times went further, prophesying back in February that the winner-to-be was “celebrity-studded sugar glob that shouldn’t win (but might).”
The cast really was the kicker after all, which you couldn’t have guessed before the credits rolled: J.J. Abrams and Woody Harrelson produced, and Gabriel Byrne, Idris Elba, and Tom Hollander voice-acted. Isobel Waller-Bridge, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sister, did the score—and the whole thing was bolstered by the team at Apple, the product of their venture into the animation industry.
It comes right on the back of the Andrea Riseborough scandal, who won a nomination for Best Actress for her performance in To Leslie—a feature that grossed less than $30,000 upon its US release, and which wasn’t considered for any other category. It’s been widely speculated that the feat was achieved by way of a “grassroots campaign,” making good use of connections with the famous and powerful, and the best PR money can buy. Director Michael Morris and his wife Mary McCormack admitted to calling up celebrities they knew might have ties to the Academy—as did their team of publicists—just before the nomination process got underway.
“If Riseborough’s case was swept under the rug that easily—with a category as nationally scrutinized as Best Actress—what chance did Ice Merchants have at a fair shot?”
“Gwyneth Paltrow reportedly hosted a screening of the film in January,” reported The Cut. “Demi Moore, Kate Winslet, and Amy Adams were enlisted to lead post-screening Q&As as voting was taking place. Others, like Edward Norton, Helen Hunt, and Susan Sarandon reportedly championed Riseborough’s performance on social media. Cate Blanchett even gave her a shoutout at the Critics Choice Awards.”
The campaign was looked over for potential rules broken, but Riseborough held onto her nomination in the end. She and Morris tread carefully in the gray area, pressing right up against the Academy’s ban on direct lobbying. “We did discover social media and outreach campaigning tactics that caused concern,” a statement concluding the investigation read. “These tactics are being addressed with the responsible parties directly.”
The point being: If Riseborough’s case was swept under the rug that easily—with a category as nationally scrutinized as Best Actress—what chance did Ice Merchants have at a fair shot? Or any of the rest of those animated shorts? Or any work in the world of film, outside of the mainstream’s purview?
Of course, institutional recognition isn’t everything. But I’m sure that loss stung, especially for artists further-removed from other markers of success: high ticket sales, glowing front-page reviews, and so on. If it’s any consolation, award shows like the Oscars seem to decrease in relevance with each passing scandal. With egregious snub after snub, it’s hard to take them seriously—or as indicative of any real sort of merit.
That’s even the case for Matthew Freud, the PR maven who (suspiciously?) served as one of the producers on The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, alongside Abrams and Harrelson. Sorry, he said in his acceptance speech, in lieu of a thank you. “Sorry to all the people who should be on this stage with us.” It was intended for the rest of his cast and crew—but, by way of a “Freudian” slip, perhaps guiltily extended to the competition he beat out.