Two men, Jean-Paul Ladouceur and Grant Munro, live peacefully in adjacent cardboard houses. When a flower blooms between their houses, they fight each other to the death over the ownership of the single small flower.
The moral of the film is, simply, Love your neighbour Matthew 22:39. The moral is also shown in other languages, including:French: Aimez votre prochain
Chinese: 親善鄰居 (Qīnshàn línjū)
Hebrew: אהבתי לרעך; (Ahavthi l'reacha)
Russian: Любите ближнего своего; Lyubite blizhnego svoyego
Spanish: Ama a tu prójimo
Italian: Amate il prossimo
German: Liebe deinen Nächsten
Norwegian: Elsk din nabo
Esperanto: Amu vian najbaron
Neighbours has been described as "one of the most controversial films the NFB ever made". The eight-minute film was politically motivated:
"I was inspired to make Neighbours by a stay of almost a year in the People's Republic of China. Although I only saw the beginnings of Mao's revolution, my faith in human nature was reinvigorated by it. Then I came back to Quebec and the Korean War began. (...) I decided to make a really strong film about anti-militarism and against war." — Norman McLaren
The version of Neighbours that ultimately won an Oscar was not the version McLaren had originally created. In order to make the film palatable for American and European audiences, McLaren was required to remove a scene in which the two men, fighting over the flower, murdered the other's wife and children.
During the Vietnam War, public opinion changed, and McLaren was asked to reinstate the sequence. The original negative of that scene had been destroyed, so the scene was salvaged from a positive print of lower quality.
NFB founder John Grierson, who had invited McLaren to the NFB to form its first animation unit, would ultimately disparage Neighbours and McLaren's attempt at political cinema:
"I wouldn't trust Norman around the corner as a political thinker. I wouldn't trust Norman around the corner as a philosophic thinker. That's not what Norman is for. Norman is for Hen Hop. Hen Hop. That's wonderful. And so many other things. That's his basic gift. He's got joy in his movement. He's got loveliness in his movement. He's got fancy in his changes. That's enough"
The term 'pixilation' was created by Grant Munro, who had worked with McLaren on Two Bagatelles, a pair of short pixilation films made prior to Neighbours. While Neighbours is often credited as an animated film by many film historians, very little of the film is actually animated. The majority of the film is shot with variable-speed photography, usually in fast motion, with some stop-frame techniques. During one brief sequence, the two actors appear to levitate: this effect was actually achieved in stop-motion; the men repeatedly jumped upward but were photographed only at the top of their trajectories. Under the current definition of an animated short, it is unlikely that Neighbours would qualify as either a documentary short or an animated short.
McLaren followed Neighbours with two other films using a similar combination of pixilation, live action, variable speed photography and string-puppets. The first, A Chairy Tale (1957) was a collaboration with Claude Jutra and Ravi Shankar. The second, Opening Speech by Norman McLaren (1960) was made for the International Film Festival of Montreal, and starred McLaren himself.
Wolf Koenig served as cameraman on the film.
Neighbours is the winner of both a Canadian Film Award and an Academy Award, for the latter of which it was nominated twice, for Short Subject (One-reel) and for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Strangely, it was in the Documentary category that this short, stylized drama won its Oscar. A press release issued by AMPAS states that Neighbours is "among a group of films that not only competed, but won Academy Awards in what were clearly inappropriate categories."
This film was designated as a "masterwork" by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada, a charitable non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the preservation of Canada’s audio-visual heritage.
In 2009, Neighbours was added to UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme, listing the most significant documentary heritage collections in the world.
Extreme's video for the first single, "Rest in Peace", from their third album III Sides To Every Story was closely modelled after Neighbours. The NFB took legal action and the matter was settled out of court, with withdrawal of the video from circulation.. However, the withdrawn video was subsequently posted on YouTube where it can be viewed in its entirety.