The Worst Oscar Winner of All Time

In From the Vault by John Tebbutt


Have you heard of the Academy Award-winning film The Crunch Bird (1971)? It’s a two-minute-long cartoon based on an off-colour joke. Here, let me save you the Googling and describe the entire film:
So a woman is looking for a gift for her hard-to-please husband. She spots a mean-looking bird in a pet shop. The pet shop guy tells her it’s a “Crunch Bird”, and says not to buy it because it’s dangerous. To demonstrate, he yells “Crunch Bird…the chair!” and the bird immediately transforms into a sort of airborne piranha, flying over to a nearby chair and chomping at it faster than the eye can follow. The chair is reduced to matchsticks in seconds. “That’s perfect!” says the woman, who buys the bird for her husband. Later on, the husband comes home in a foul mood after a hard day, and sees the bird in his house. “You’ve been shopping again?! What the Hell is that ugly thing?!” he rants. “It’s for you, my sweetheart…a pet! It’s a Crunch Bird!” gushes the wife. “Crunch Bird, my ass!” shouts the husband, and the bird immediately flies toward the man’s ample rear end as the screen discreetly fades to black, and we hear cartoonish chomping sounds followed by a discrete burp.

That’s it. That’s the entire film. And it won an Academy Award.
Is it funny? You bet. Heck, I laughed. If this thing actually played in theatres before any full length films, it probably caught 1971 audiences off guard and produced gales of laughter. The thing is, there’s only one joke, and once you know it, there’s really no reason to see the film. (Oh. Whoops. Belated spoiler warning, I suppose.) Plus, the artwork looks like a bunch of hastily-scribbled doodles.
Crunch Bird director Ted Petok went on to make a few more obscure animated shorts (The Mad Baker, Yetta the Yenta and…oh dear…The Crunch Bird II), but otherwise was not heard from again. No wait…in 1982 there was a TV commercial for a sketchy Toyota dealership starring the Crunch Bird himself! “No one is more determined to put the crunch on high sticker prices than the Crunch Bird at Douglas Toyota! Just say ‘Crunch Bird, high sticker prices!’” Cue the image of a price list getting chewed up by a cartoon bird. Wow, it took eleven years for the Crunch Bird to sell out? Uncanny!

Because of it’s brevity, dearth of artistic intentions, and general lack of replay value, The Crunch Bird now enjoys a reputation for winning the most undeserved Oscar in history. Forrest Gump (1994), Crash (2004) and How Green was My Valley (1941) have nothing on this baby. Marisa Tomei’s unexpected win for My Cousin Vinnie (1992) looks completely uncontroversial in comparison.
Did The Crunch Bird have any serious competition at the 44th Academy Awards? Well, yes it did, as a matter of fact. The other two films nominated for Best Animated Short Film in 1971 were what you might call “heavy hitters”. The National Film Board of Canada (NFB), who were cranking out award winning shorts more than anyone else at the time, submitted a cool little dialogue-free piece called Evolution (1971). In it, we see a wacky pantomime of the entire path of evolution, from single-celled organisms to intelligent space-travellers, over the course of ten minutes. The other nominee that year was The Selfish Giant, a touching children’s fable based on a story by Oscar Wilde. The Selfish Giant became a favourite on television and home video, along with the later Wilde adaptation The Happy Prince (1974), coincidentally directed by Evolution’s Michael Mills.
But hey, how can Oscar Wilde’s prose or the NFB’s funny science lesson compete with an ass-eating bird?

First published in FFWD Weekly on June 30th, 2011