As the oldest film school in the U.S. — and the alma mater of filmmakers as accomplished and diverse as George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, Ryan Coogler and Rian Johnson — USC Cinematic Arts established a reputation for skilled craftsmanship, rich community and compelling storytelling. This week we spotlight their newest generation of filmmakers, working in a wide range of genres and styles.
Esme has just lost her father. At his funeral, her Uncle Al tries to console her in the way he knows best, by letting her drink the beer she asks for and trying to console her by telling her to look on the bright side: at least both her parents didn’t die.
But underneath his feckless demeanor, there’s something more, especially as he begins telling Esme a remarkable story: a tale about a magical tree that can bring his drawings and sketches to life. The tree and its keeper, Grey, brought a young Al comfort in various ways during his troubled childhood, where he too reckoned with the death of a parent and the resulting loneliness of his grief.
Curious and skeptical, Esme picks up where Al’s journey left off, and she discovers just how true Al’s story really is — and just what magic is left in the world, despite all of its pain and sorrow.
Magical, sharply funny and moving, this short fantasy explores the power of creativity and imagination to console, soothe and delight, often by evoking the very magic of cinematic craftsmanship itself to dazzle the eye and warm the heart.
Visually, the short is a marvel, mixing beautifully saturated cinematography with gorgeously intricate animation. The look and feel of the film have an elegant richness to them, one that both acknowledges the melancholic emotions that underlie the characters in the story but also the vibrant, poetic role that unfettered imagination plays for them.
The writing and performances all also have tremendous wit to them, both subverting the expectations that are typical to stories about children and yet respecting the complexity of their emotional experience. While Uncle Al is a risque character in giving Esme a beer and encouraging her swearing, he also treats her feelings seriously and recognizes the depth of her pain, something that’s especially valuable in a world that would prefer to look the other way.
Actor Glenn Howerton — best known for his role on much-beloved comedy “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” — plays Uncle Al with the insouciance and rebelliousness of a bachelor uncle. But underneath the demeanor is also a moving thoughtfulness as he reckons with his own lingering memories of grief. By sharing his story with Esme, however, he lifts a considerable burden from his own spirit — and rediscovers the spark within himself.
“When Pigs Fly” has flights of fancy, a sense of transgressive naughtiness and charm to spare, but it’s also grounded in the idea that childhood isn’t just an idyllic freedom unshackled by grown-up responsibilities and dilemmas. Instead, there’s an acknowledgment that the interior lives of children are full of their own thorniness and difficulties. Through navigating this rough terrain with the help of empathy, imagination and play — and the help of adults who see and hear us for who we are — we can come through to a deeper, richer understanding of life and people, and a remembrance that there is still magic to be found, both in the world and within ourselves.
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A young boy discovers a magical tree that brings his drawings to life. | When Pigs Fly
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